Chicago Theater Review: NOT ABOUT NIGHTINGALES (Raven Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 26, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

BEFORE ANY GLASS MENAGERIE,
A PRISON SWEATBOX

It’s not the “odor of mendacity” that wafts through this Tennessee Williams play—it’s more like the whiff of tear gas. The “kindness of strangers” that seldom surfaces in A Streetcar Named Desire is totally absent in its cruel cage. Not About Nightingales is just what the title implies: a sensation-seeking exercise in ashcan naturalism with melodramatic overtones. The first full-length play by the playwright of broken souls, this blast from the past was penned in 1938 when Williams was 27. It still burns with the ardor and indignation of angry youth. (Rejected by the Group Theatre, it was not performed for 60 years until Vanessa Redgrave rediscovered it.)

This prison play is worth its provocation. Not About Nightingales (the title renounces any Keatsian fantasy) depicts a real-life hunger strike endured by malnourished prisoners at a Pennsylvania penetentiary. (Perhaps with Hollywood in mind, Williams moved the tragedy to “The Rock” of Alcatraz.) Their punishment was to be thrown into “Klondike,” the warden’s sweatbox (a sweatbox that anticipates the gas chambers to come). Of the 25 convicts locked up in the middle of a heat wave, five are roasted to death in the 150-degree steam.

The young Williams transformed their tragedy into a two-and-a-half-hour protest play, in the spirit of the taxi strike in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, the proletarian boiler room of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, and 1930s’ gangster flicks, while anticipating the 1940s’ hard-boiled “film noir.” Punch drunk with tough-guy slang and gutter poetry, this unashamed potboiler sprawls and seethes with justifiable overkill. But, raw as his “fascinating horror” seems, the future Williams appears in rhapsodies to people trapped in their own cages, souls who need to break the walls that keep them prisoners.

It was a coup for TimeLine Theatre Company to acquire the rights to this London, Houston and Broadway triumph in 2000; now it’s the same for Raven Theatre to reprise it in Michael Menendian’s urgent revival, an impressive staging in its own right. Consummately cast, inspired to a froth, and only sporadically failing to combust, the 13-person ensemble delivers visceral, performances that are both dead-on and recall the period.

Brandon Greenhouse—perhaps the first African-American to take this part and make it even riskier, considering the time and place—is strong as Jim Allison, a trusty who risks his hopes for freedom to fight for prisoners who fear him as a spy. He longs for “intellectual emancipation” but in this hellhole it’s punishment, not rehabilitation or even deterrence, that rules the “reformatory.” As his lover and the warden’s disillusioned secretary Eva Crain, Sophia Menendian efficiently recreates the innocence that reinvents indignation, though not the all-defiant passion that makes her run such risks. A literally whip-cracking Chuck Spencer is rightly despicable as the warden (a grafter, sexual harasser, and torturer) but occasionally hints at Williams’ sympathy for this tool brutalized by the prison he runs.

Other persuasive performances: Josh Volkers, hard as nails as a con who doesn’t “con” but leads them to their doom, Luke Daigle as the delicate homosexual who worries about his nails, Kevin Patterson as a pandering preacher, and JoAnn Montemurro as a distraught mother. Ray Toler’s penal set, Diane D. Fairchild’s harsh lighting and Heath Hays’ pulverizing sound design combine in the final horrific immolation. Blanche DuBois and Laura Wingfield are nowhere to be seen, but there’s no doubting the genius of this ever-young playwright.

photos by Dean La Prairie

Not About Nightingales
Raven Theatre Company
6157 N. Clark St. (at Granville)
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on April 29, 2017
for tickets, call 773.338.2177 or visit Raven Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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