Chicago Theatre Review
A Glimpse of an Up-and-coming Genius
Not About Nightingales- Raven Theatre
Written by Tennessee Williams in 1938, six years before his autobiographical classic, “The Glass Menagerie,” this early work was inspired by a newspaper article that deeply moved and affected the talented, struggling young playwright. It detailed the riot, torture and food strike of prisoners in a Pennsylvania prison. This play remained hidden away among the playwright’s papers and archives until it was discovered, 60 years later, by actress Vanessa Redgrave. It’s because of her determination that the first production of Williams’ fourth, full-length play finally came to life on stage.
This early drama is important for several reasons. No one will ever argue that this prison drama ranks among Williams’ best works, but to the serious theatergoer it offers a glimpse into the formative roots of one of America’s finest playwrights. Tom will eventually morph into playwright Tennessee Williams; and he’ll go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, almost ten years later, for “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But in the late 1930’s the writer was still struggling to find his own voice.
In this early work we see a great deal of physical action but very little of the powerful, emotional fireworks that mark his best plays. He’s created a large cast of characters, played at Raven by 13 skilled actors, but they’re not depicted as real people. Every one of them is a stereotype. There’s a story here, based on a real life incident, yet Williams hasn’t yet learned how to transcend mere facts. The drama is unsatisfying because the playwright doesn’t know how, at this point in his life, to weave a spell with words. There’s no charm or humor, very little poetry and his characters are two-dimensional. Williams tells us what is going on, but he doesn’t guide us to understand the reason these things happen or why the characters behave as they do. Contrast this two and a half hour drama with some of his more sublime plays, such as “Night of the Iguana,” “The Glass Menagerie” or “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Michael Menendian directs this production with power and purpose. His finest directorial decision comes from employing the talents of choreographer Breon Arzell to create a variety of innovative movement and rhythms for the chain gang. As in the past, scenic designer Ray Toler has created another sprawling stage environment. This time his plan includes a confining, bunk-filled jail cell, the barred exterior hallway and the warden’s office, elevated high above the prisoners, and featuring the only window in the prison. The remaining playing area transforms into a waiting room, a corridor, a dining hall and the dreaded, oven-like solitary confinement, ironically nicknamed the “Klondike.” Diane D. Fairchild has lit this penitentiary with more shadows than illumination, and Heath Hays enhances this gloomy world with his sound design.
Menendian’s large cast is competent. Eva Crane, the play’s heroine, is played with earnest, yet contained passion by Sophia Menendian. She offers the play’s only glimpse of grace and civility. We first meet the financially desperate Miss Crane as she interviews for an ill-advised office position at the prison. Eva’s male counterpart, and eventual love interest, is Jim Allison. He’s played with sinew and sensitivity by Brandon Greenhouse. Jim’s hated by the other prisoners, who call him Canary because they think he secretly sings to the warden of everything they do and say. He’s been elevated to an office desk job, where he writes the prison newsletter, while also being subjected to unthinkable physical and emotional abuse by his superior.
Boss Whalen, the vile, immoral warden of this penal institution, is played with repugnance and hard-hitting hostility by Chuck Spencer. He’s a creepy, bigoted, hateful creature, without a single redeeming quality. Married, both to a woman we never see, as well as to the full bottle in his top desk drawer, Whalen is a letch. He uses and disposes of other people around him with little thought or care.
Equally unpleasant, yet always dreaming of Goldie, the woman he left behind, convict Butch O’Fallon is played with hostile force and intimidation by Joshua J. Volkers. He rules all the other prisoners and guards in C Block with his spiteful menace. Yet, for some unknown reason, Butch has become pals with fellow cellmates, Joe, nicely played with strength and compassion by Rudy Galvan, and the “refined” Queen, effeminately portrayed by Luke Daigle. Matthew Garry is heartbreaking in two roles. He portrays a prisoner named Sailor Jack, who’s soon broken, driven insane and disposed of by the warden. The actor later returns as Swifty, a young athlete incarcerated on a trumped-up charge, and immediately despised by both Boss Whalen and Butch. He meets his tragic end, along with several of the other inmates, in the burning hell of the Klondike.
Other minor characters in this drama are Mrs. Bristol, Sailor Jack’s mother, nicely played by JoAnn Montemurro; put-upon prisoner Ollie and the Chaplain, both depicted with honesty by Tamarus Harvell; prisoner Mac and the new chaplain, Reverend Hooker, energetically delineated by Kevin Patterson; Alberts, strongly played by Juwan Lockett; and head prison guard Shultz, a walking bag of brown-nosing pus, is portrayed by Jon Beal.
This early work by Tennessee Williams is important, not for its stereotypical story and characters, but in the way it foreshadows the brilliance of a writer who, in 1938, was still a work in progress. In this play we catch a glimpse of an up-and-coming genius, an angry young playwright, whose impassioned attempt at expressionistic playwriting was just beginning to emerge. Williams’ fourth play is like a living newspaper, more intent upon exposing the injustices of prison life than creating art. That would come later. But this production is significant to theatergoers because it’s one of Williams’ first plays and it serves as a precursor of what was to come.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 19-June 17 by Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-338-2177 or by going to www.raventheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.