With the American premiere of Not About Nightingales, the Alley Theatre has made much more than a surprising discovery. The recently uncovered play by Tennessee Williams has secured the talented company a place in theatrical history.
Both unflinchingly harsh in its drama and refreshingly sharp in its characterization, Not About Nightingales lives and breathes with a vitality that infuses the best pieces of theater. Every person, every scene in the play crackles with a consistently desperate energy in this beautifully mounted production.
Originally written by Williams in 1938 (seven years before the Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie), Not About Nightingales was submitted by the playwright to a contest in New York offering a $500 prize to the winner. He worked on it constantly, "just writing, writing - drinking coffee nearly every day - and feeling well in spite of it."
Williams' play was not selected, but he continued to revise the piece in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It went unproduced during his lifetime; Williams died in 1983.
Enter Vanessa Redgrave, who was performing with her brother Corin Redgrave in the Moving Theatre and Alley Theatre collaborations of Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar in Houston in 1996. She brought the play to the attention of Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd after uncovering it at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin.
After premiering March 5 at the National's Cottesloe Theatre in London, Not About Nightingales has flown Stateside. Three Alley actors are part of the original cast: James Black, Sherri Parker Lee and Noble Shropshire.
Lacking the mysterious Southern aura that haunts many of Williams' widely known, female-driven plays (A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Not About Nightingales is steeped in something decidedly different. It is based on actual events detailing the masochistic horrors inflicted on inmates by a monstrous warden in a Philadelphia County Prison.
The technical centerpiece of the play is "Klondike," a torturous steam bath that Boss Whalen (Corin Redgrave) uses as a last resort, or breaking tool of sorts, when a gang of prisoners decides to launch a hunger strike after their demands are not met. With its hideous metal heaters and constantly spewing steam, Klondike seems less a form of prison psychology and more one of the darker recesses of hell.
The agonizing heat that radiates from the chamber in the play's most harrowing scenes can practically be felt by every member of the audience. A dank mist rises throughout the arena, adding a sense of claustrophobic fear to the unfolding story.
Dramatically, the play draws its strength from the varied stories of the prisoners and the budding, doomed relationship of Eva Crane (Lee) and Canary Jim (Finbar Lynch), named so because he sings to the warden whenever an important piece of information falls upon his ears.
Because of his seeming loyalty to Whalen, Jim roams about the grounds as he pleases, edits the prison newsletter and works in the warden's office. He is a man as free as one can possibly be in prison.
Eva, desperate for a job as the prison stenographer, is hired by the warden more because of her looks than her ability. She eventually becomes aware of the horrors of the system, but decides to keep her mouth shut because she needs the money in the midst of the Great Depression.
In the confines of the office, she also becomes acquainted with Jim, who reluctantly reveals the rage and torment within himself to an attentive Eva. Confronted with a real, live woman for the first time in years, Jim also finds it hard to extinguish his own attraction to the stenographer.
Within the walls of the prison cells lies another of Williams' plot centerpieces, Butch O'Fallon (Black). Bitter and angered by his situation and the miserable prison conditions, Butch carries a deep hatred toward Whalen, which he consistently presses upon the other inmates.
In some of the play's most affecting scenes, Butch is visited, in dreams and delusion, by his girlfriend Goldie (Sandra Dickinson), whose arrival is swathed in muffled dancehall tunes and the brilliant shimmer of a glitterball.
There are many touches of genius here, both in story and stage design. File cabinets, cell bars, benches and desks occupy most of the set's dank sparseness, which is covered in a dull gray color. The dreariness even pervades the pencils, bottles of liquor and American flag used as decorative props, all of which are dyed gray for maximum effect.
Scenes segue effortlessly between the warden's office and the prison cells, and many are infused with moments of tense humor. Director Trevor Nunn has drawn lines of separation that clearly define each and every moment, but he allows them to retain a sense of impressive, consistent fluidity.
Perhaps energized by the sensation surrounding the play, every actor fleshes out a full-bodied performance. Redgrave creates a despicable, loathsome character in the warden, a man blinded by his own fears and weakness. Every line he utters is suspect, and every time he touches Eva, the audience literally seems to collectively cringe. It's a brave characterization that draws a terrifying portrait of a man who seems to spite his own humanity.
Black manages to be both fearful and sympathetic as Butch, whose angry flame is intermittently diffused by haunting memories and the mortality of his prison mates. Butch is often a bullish, bullying character, but Black levels it out by displaying the hurt and loss Butch has also experienced in his life.
As Eva, Lee manages an affecting mix of naiveté and confusion, self-doubt and fear. Eva's eyes are completely shut when she enters the doors of the prison, but as they open up to the realities inside, her ambivalent state only makes her more terrified. Eva isn't really indicative of Williams' female characters, but Lee's portrayal is grounded in a clear understanding of a difficult role.
Lynch registers the strongest as Canary Jim, perfectly capturing the confusion, despair and hidden rage of a complex character. His loyalty to the warden has freed Jim from many of the horrors of prison, but his own conscience and need for some framework of life constantly tug at his inner thoughts. Lynch expertly captures the mixture of emotions within his character and possesses a strong, thoughtful stage presence.
There is also strong supporting work within the confines of the prison, most notably from Jude Akuwudike as Queenie, a gay prison inmate who lives in constant fear; Dickinson as Butch's girlfriend and a distraught mother of a prisoner; and Tom Hodgkins as a reverend who refuses to ignore the horrors of the prison. All three are startlingly adept and create sharply drawn characters.
Williams' work here is both social and political in its commentary, and while some of the writing borders on preachiness, it is never less than effective.
At its best, the play burns with a brilliant desperation that sets itself inside every character and every scene and doesn't let go.
Though it remained buried for quite some time, the treasure that is Not About Nightingales should shine quite brightly for many years to come and stand as a distinct, bold marker in the career of a brilliant American playwright.
Performances of Not About Nightingales are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through July 3. In order to accommodate the staging, the play will be performed at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas Ave. Tickets are $35 and $37. Call (713) 228-8421.