Corrections or additions?
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
"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
1633 Broadway at 50th Street, 800-432-7250. $60 & $65.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.