By Tennessee Williams.
Directed by Michael Menedian.
“I’ll start writing, but not about nightingales,” says Canary Jim Allison, the reluctant poet at the heart of Tennessee Williams’ Not About Nightingales.
At Raven Theatre, Chicago.
Once-lost Williams’ play a dated curiosity piece.
Written in 1938 as the first full-length play by Williams but never produced until 1998, Not About Nightingales is an agitprop ant-establishment propaganda work with extreme situations and extreme characters. The play itself focuses on a group of inmates who go on a hunger strike in an attempt to better their situation as they are undernourished and brutalized at the hands of an evil warden. There is also a soft love story, with the characters Eva, the new secretary at the prison, and Jim, a handsome inmate who works for the warden and is trying to get out on parole. Williams gained inspiration for the play after reading newspaper accounts of inmates who suffocated in a steam room in a Pennsylvania prison. The play had its world premier at The Alley Theatre in Houston in 1998.
Director Michael Menendian has cast a group of inmates led by Butch (Joshua J. Volkers), a tough con who leads the eventual uprising and hungry strike. His fellow cons are a representative group nicely committed to the story. Their defiance is contradicted by their foot-stomping synchronised marching (in-step) to and from meals. The poor food and harsh living conditions fuel the discontent.
At the warden’s office, we meet Jim Allison (Brandon Greenhouse) the trustee with ten years in the prison who has educated himself with “big words.” When Eva Crane comes aboard as the warden’s secretary, sparks start flying between Jim and Eva. Boss Whalen (Jim Spencer) is a pure evil soul who delights in torturing the cons in between drinking and womanising. He has his eyes on Eva but before that can happen the cons start a hunger strike.
Without giving away much more, Williams’ drama has his victims fight back even faced with the harsh punishment in the “Klondike” – a room heated quite high that can make a man boil to death. We also witness the moral dilemma that Eva and Jim face by exposing the hunger strike and it’s “Klondike.” Eva risks losing her job in a tough economy; Jim risks losing his upcoming parole.
The dramatic outcome is presented effectively. Not About Nightingales gives a sliver of the style and themes Williams’ championed. Here he gives Jim Allison the best dialogue that was masterfully presented by Brandon Greenhouse who, together with Joshua J, Volkers anchored a game cast. Chuck Spencer is the deliciously evil warden.
Not About Nightingales is a tad dated since there have been many other prison plays seen on stage. What it does give a glimpse of what will come from Williams. It is worth seeing.
Date Reviewed: April 25, 2017.
For more info checkout the Not About Nightingales page at theatreinchicago.com
At Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. (at Granville), call 773-338-2177, or visit Raven Theatre, tickets are $46 ( discounts for seniors and students as well as military personnel), Thurs-Sat at 8; Sat & Sun at 3:30, running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission, ends on June 4, 2017.