* Written by Tennessee Williams * Directed by Trevor Nunn * Starring Corin Redgrave, James Black, Finbar Lynch, Sherri Parker Lee

The Alley Theater in Houston has scored the theater coup of the year by co-producing with England’s Royal National Theatre the world premiere of a Tennessee Williams play that has languished unproduced for 50 years. A brutal and upsetting prison drama, Not About Nightingales packs a three-part punch: it’s a 1930s style “Living Newspaper” expose of inhumane prison conditions; it’s an early study of themes that would emerge full-blown in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; and it’s a powerhouse dramatic spectacle staged by Trevor Nunn, world-famous for directing Cats and Les Miserables. Following its London debut, the production opened last month in Houston for a four-week run that concluded July 3. Surely that won’t be the end of Not About Nightingales. Far from being an academic footnote, it forces us to reconsider what we know about the St. Louis-born gay poet who helped shape 20th century American drama.

The legend of Not About Nightingales will forever be inseparable from the story of this triumphant first production. While preparing to perform in a 1989 London production of Orpheus Descending, Vanessa Redgrave came upon the author’s preface mentioning an earlier play filled with unprecedented “violence and horror.” Written in 1938, when Williams was 27, the play was inspired by newspaper reports of a Pennsylvania prison where convicts on a hunger strike were locked in a steam-heated cell called “the Klondike” and four were roasted alive. Intrigued, Redgrave tracked down a copy from the Williams estate in 1993, shortly after she’d founded the Moving Theatre with her brother Corin. In 1996, during the company’s residency at the Alley Theater, Redgrave persuaded the Alley to produce Not About Nightingales with Nunn, who also runs the National Theater.

The play sets the thuggish warden Boss Whalen (Corin Redgrave) against Butch O’Fallon (James Black), the cellblock tyrant who terrorizes his fellow inmates into striking for better food. Prison life is rendered with a mixture of Hollywood cliches and cringe-inducing documentary as inmates are beaten, driven mad, and tortured onstage. At least one of the prisoners is gay, a black pothead named Queenie (Jude Akuwudike), though the script suggests he picked up syphilis from Butch and other references convey more frankness about gay sex in prison than was typical in 1938. A contrasting love story develops between Boss Whalen’s naive new secretary Eva (Sherri Parker Lee) and his in-house spy Canary Jim (Finbar Lynch), who’s despised as a stool pigeon by his fellow inmates but who uses his compromised position to break the prison scandal to the world.

Like all but the best of Williams’ plays, this one gets increasingly melodramatic and implausible as it goes along, yet there’s such a gigantic emotional force pushing the play along that at a certain point it demands total surrender. That the audience does so willingly is a tribute to Nunn’s relentlessly creative staging, Richard Hoover’s ingenious gray-metal set, and the high-level acting by a British-American cast. This show is a reminder of the value of non-commercial art theaters: too dark to imagine succeeding on Broadway, it’s nonetheless a first-rate theatrical experience.

Though Vanessa is nowhere to be seen, her political consciousness asserts itself by focusing our attention on prisons (a grotesque “growth industry” in the 1990s). And she clearly identifies with Williams, weighing the artist’s responsibility to the ugly knowledge about the world the daily papers feed us. Of course, Williams left overt social content behind, but Not About Nightingales is a fascinating glimpse at the road not taken.

The Advocate, July 21, 1998

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