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A CurtainUp Review
Not About Nightingales
By Elyse Sommer
Thrilling is an adjective I use very rarely, but a thrilling theatrical experience is exactly what Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales offers. Director Trevor Nunn and a magnificent cast and design team have lifted this never produced fledgling play out of the realm of melodramatic docu-drama and noteworthy historical artifact and transformed it into a mesmerizing three hours you won't soon forget.
Even though it may be a mere precursor of a great but as yet evolving talent, the rawness of the subterranean prison world of Nightingales is particularly suited to seeing the still raw poetic elements that defined his later masterpieces. The fact that the playwright and the director's cache have enabled us to see an obsolete genre-- a big-cast play with a passionate social conscience -- and a group of characters with all the earmarks of their later and more subtle counterparts, underscores the validity of using the "t" adjective.
A caveat! Not Without Nightingales is not easy to watch. While there are scenes rich in humor and tenderness and the language is laced with the touch of the poet that Williams always was, this excruciatingly visceral production does not allow you to ever look away. Its clanging metal noises, angry voices and agonized screams cannot be shut off. As soon as you enter the world of the prison in which 3500 inmates are subject to Warden Bert Whalen's (Corin Redgrave ) reign of terror, you will feel trapped in the all-enveloping grayness of Richard Hoover's brilliantly scary and deservedly award-winning set (Evening Standard, London Critics Circle and Olivier). The Warden's office where Eva Crane (Sherri Parker Lee) and Jim Allison (Finbar Lynch) work, the two level cell block at the opposite end of the stage, and the area in between with its grate-covered floor -- everything is gray including the props (the American flag, telephones, etc. ) and Karyl Newman's 30s costumes. Chris Parry's lighting adds to the grim aura. This sense of being inescapably caught up in the life of the prison is intensified by Mr. Nunn's use of the aisles and walkways of the orchestra sections straddling the long stage of the Circle in the Square to repeatedly march hapless rows of prisoners up and down these passages as if the whole theater were part of the prison. (The Circle's re-opening for business with this particular play calls for a special Hurrah!)
The plot is based on fact -- a prisoner protest against the inhumane conditions in a Philadelphia institution during which four inmates were tortured to death. While this true crime building block no doubt reflects the influence of 30s prison and gangster movies on the young playwright, the lyrical voice in the making and ever present empathy for sensitive dreamers trapped in one way or another is very much in evidence. The tough protest leader Butch O'Fallon (James Black), the sensitive "Canary Jim" who longs for parole and the freedom to write and Eva the secretary who comes to love him all bear the hallmark of characters from plays like The Glass Menagerie. and A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams even tries (though less successfully) to give hints of inner demons propelling the warden (played with chilling malevolence and red-faced bluster by Corin Redgrave.)
There are also scraps of dialogues to evoke more familiar Williams lines. Jim's "Every man walks around with a cage he carries around with him until he is dead" triggers a memories of Jim Xavier's who in Orpheus Descending declares "We're all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins for life!" (It was while preparing to appear in this play that Vanessa Redgrave came across references to Nightingales which prompted her search for and championship of the script). The refined Blanche DuBois who declares that she "cast her pearls before swine" is heard here in the homosexual prisoner, Queen (Jude Akuwudike's declaration that "all my life I've been persecuted by people because I'm refined."
The direction and staging also give an eerie post-1938 relevance to the inhumane prison conditions Williams was writing about. Butch's explanation to a new prisoner that in cellblock C he's the boss as Mussolini is in Italy and "the guy with the funny mustache" is in Germany resonates with all that those dictators wrought soon after. The guard who at the end declares "I had no idea what was going on" is just one more example of the play's foretelling of expanding world tragedy as well as the playwright's expanding talent.
I didn't read the recently published copy of the original script (see link), but I doubt anything was changed except through the director's ability to locate nuances and round rough edges while remaining true to the authorial voice. Watching the eighteen members of this cast at work, his ability to orchestrate large casts and complicated action is without challenge. Mr. Nunn also knows exactly how far to go with some of the almost unbearably painful to witness atrocities, as illustrated when we finally see the punishment area Klondike -- "that suburb of hell." He takes us to the very edge of that hell, then switches gears with one of Butch's dream sequences with his dance hall girl friend Goldie (Sandra Searles Dickinson who also plays the mother of one of the inmates). It's one extraordinary scene in an evening of extraordinarily satisfying theater.
With all the blathering about British writers, directors, actors and, audiences, being so superior to their American counterparts, this is a heartening example of Anglo-American synergy rather than competition. The British Vanessa Redgrave, discovered Nightingales while appearing in one of America's finest regional theaters, the Alley. The actors and creative team are from both sides of the ocean. If you check out our correspondent Darren Dalglish's Nightingales review during its London run you'll see that this is also a case of Anglo-American shared critical enthusiasm.
As a final footnote to this review, it's also worth pointing out that what Mr. Nunn has done for a famous dead playwright, American director Michael Mayer did last year for a young unknown dead playwright's first and only playStupid Kids. While we'll never know if John Russell's modest little play might have launched an impressive career, the commitment of a gifted director at least gave life to a work that would have died with its author. Tennessee Williams page