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Review: `Not About Nightingales’

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on March 31, 1999. All rights reserved.

It doesn’t matter what other play opens on Broadway

this season. "Not About Nightingales" is the play of plays,

the event of events. While there is a sense of tragedy in knowing

that the play’s author, Tennessee Williams, never saw this work produced

in his lifetime, there is a feeling of triumph present in every unforgettable

performance and in every spectacular scene of this premiere production.

Under Trevor Nunn’s brilliant direction, "Not About Nightingales"

arrives on the Broadway stage like an awesome, long-awaited comet.

Notwithstanding some of the dated dramaturgy of Williams’ early, never-before-produced

play, part of a once popular genre in the 1930s called a "living

newspaper," Nunn’s ferociously realistic staging gives the work

an uncompromising dramatic integrity. Not for the squeamish, "Not

About Nightingales" is a blisteringly prison melodrama.

With our patience willingly extended to the young Williams for his

passion for old-fashioned didacticism, there is, nevertheless, plenty

of excitement to be found in the pot-boiling action, and with Williams’

courageous scheme to bring cinematic fluidity to a stage work. The

early prison talkie, "The Big House," may have served as inspiration

for Williams’ 1938 play.

The audience is seated in the midst of designer Richard Hoover’s enveloping,

all-gray, bi-level prison setting. It is the director’s intention

that we feel incarcerated along with the inmates, and as the fearsome

nerve-shattering banging clanging steel cell doors open and close,

we do. The effect of our involvement is made even more real when the

inmates and the prison guards enter and exit alongside us, down the

aisles. Among various prison locations, all rather scary, is the warden’s

office, with an entrance to its own dark subterranean chamber. The

producers could not have found a better theater than the stadium-like

Circle in the Square for this historic venture.

Just beginning to reach for the lyrical, poetic visionary heights

that would distinguish his later plays, the daring young Williams

is appreciated here in a mode that is as deliberately abrasive and

raw as it is impassioned and sensitive. One wonders what path Williams

might have taken had this form of docu-drama catapulted him to success,

and had his social conscience prevailed over the more personal fantasies

of his best-known plays.

The dark, forgotten prison world candidly reflected in "Not About

Nightingales" was inspired by a real scandal that occurred in

a Pennsylvania prison at the time the play was written. Newspaper

accounts at the time told of inmates being sent for punishment to

a torture chamber called the "Klondike," where, as the temperature

reached 150 degrees, they were roasted alive. It was for Williams

to weave a poignant love story through this "suburb of hell."

Although it was written seven years before Williams’ greatness was

defined by "The Glass Menagerie" in 1945, "Not About Nightingales"

already offers us in Eva Crane (Sherry Parker Lee) the seeds of future

Williams’ heroines. We can spot in Crane, and through Lee’s touching

performance, a complex woman who, however graced by tenderness, trapped

by despair, and tarnished by fate, is also a pillar of strength and

courage. Only for the lack of job opportunities during the Great Depression

is Crane grateful to find employment as a secretary to Bert "Boss"

Whalen (Colin Redgrave), the lecherous, sadistic warden of an island


With growing fear for herself and concern for the brutality she witnesses,

Crane is torn between the stability and security of her job, her inexplicable

fascination with the hypnotic evil Whalen, and her rapidly advancing

romantic interest in Canary Jim (Finbar Lynch), a literate prisoner

who works in the warden’s office. Up for parole in one month, the

conflicted Jim is hard pressed to keep the warden satisfied with inside

information and his fellow inmates from hating him.

When Crane sees in Jim the makings of a writer she comes

to love him. As the passionate but disconsolate would-be writer who

would be dead if the inmates had their way, Lynch is terrific. But

it is the making of a massive hunger strike that adds fuel to the

personal conflicts, as the frustrated prisoners refuse to continue

eating food that is making them sick. Spurred on by the bestial cellblock

ringleader, Butch O’Fallon (James Black), the prisoners who refuse

to eat face the consequences of the "Klondike."

The play is charged with gripping sounds and visually stunning moments

that include dream sequences between Butch and his girlfriend Goldie

(Sandra Searles Dickinson), the irony of a passing tour boat, with

the clueless guide announcing over the loudspeaker, "how great

it is to be alive on this beautiful day," the inhuman treatment

of the prisoners, and the all-too-vivid horrors of the steaming and

scalding "Klondike." Many of the 18-member cast earn our rapt

attention. Among the most stirring performances are Jude Akuwudike’s

portrayal of a "sensitive" prisoner, Noble Shropshire as the

warden’s pawn of a preacher, and again Dickinson, who also plays Mrs.

Bristol, the horrified mother of a prisoner who has been tortured

into insanity.

"Not About Nightingales" would never have seen the light of

day had not Vanessa Redgrave committed herself to resurrecting the

long-lost script after searching it out in the archives of the Harry

Ransom Humanities Resource Center at the University of Texas in 1996.

The result of Redgrave’s enthusiasm for the play has resulted in what

only can be called a celebratory collaboration between England’s Royal

National Theater and Moving Theater, and Houston’s Alley Theater.

Not to be missed. HHHH

— Simon Saltzman

Not About Nightingales, Circle-in-the-Square Theater,

1633 Broadway at 50th Street, 800-432-7250. $60 & $65.

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