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Jailhouse Shock

At the Alley, Not About Nightingales reveals Tennessee Williams's youthful outrage

The prisoners, many of whom committed relatively minor offenses, some as simple as stealing a case of food to feed a hungry family, are the victims of both Butch and Whalen (though Whalen is far worse because he has real power). Williams, who was young and outraged, wants to give a voice to these lost souls.

Helping this story take shape is director Trevor Nunn, who has created a wondrous theatrical experience at the Aerial Theater. This production is sometimes ear-piercingly loud, with its police whistles and sirens and metal cups clanging along the steel prison bars. But when Jim and Eva try to make love in the shadows of the nighttime prison yard, this world gets so quiet you can hear them breathing. The action never stops, and the breakneck pace enforces a sense of inevitability.

Richard Hoover's set develops the conflict further. The stage itself, shaped like a deformed cross, hints at the fate of the sacrificial four who died in the Philadelphia prison. The cells are stacked on top of each other, a series of cruel cages. Steam shoots up from Klondike's floor with a heart-stopping hiss, and the entire set is a dingy gray -- even the rubber toy that Boss Whalen blows up to take home to his curly-headed, Shirley Temple-like daughter.

Even at his worst, Tennessee Williams is better than most playwrights could ever hope to be. And every aspect of this production does justice to this never-before-seen play.

Not About Nightingales plays through July 3 at the Alley's Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas, 230-1600.

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