Jailhouse Shock

In his late twenties and still struggling to find his voice, Tennessee Williams wrote Not About Nightingales, a violent, loud, over-the-top script full of 1930's movie-land melodrama and James Cagney tough-guy phrases. It's an imperfect play, full of hackneyed references, stereotypical characters and sometimes silly lines. But glimmering from within the gummy melodrama is the playwright who Williams would become: the creator of such literary landmarks as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The Nightingales script won a prize but was never produced -- at least, not until now, after being rediscovered and championed by actress Vanessa Redgrave. The production now playing at the Alley (a collaborative effort of the Alley, the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and the Moving Theatre of London) is an event no theater lover should miss.

The story comes right out of true-life, front-page news: Rage, riot and death all resulted from the horrifically torturous conditions of a Philadelphia prison. Full of youthful fury and poetry, Williams's play manages to quote Keats (thus the title) even as it follows the prison movie formulas of the '30s. Take, for instance, the stereotypical characters' names: There's Boss Whalen, the black-hearted warden who likes nothing better than whaling on his men with a rubber bat; and Canary Jim, the misunderstood trustee who everybody thinks is singing their secrets; and Butch O'Fallon, the rough, squat bulldog of a man who leads the prison riot. Even the dialogue often sounds like old-time movie-speak: At one point Canary Jim grumbles, "Nothing has quite so much value as the skin our guts are wrapped in."

Canary Jim, who slams Keats for writing about urns and birds, wants to invent his own kind of poetry. He's a prototype for one of Williams's most heartbreaking characters, Glass Menagerie's Tom. Like Tom, Canary Jim wants to write -- "but not," he says, "about nightingales." It's a moment of Williams's extraordinary brilliance. And the story, which is played to the theatrical hilt for all its intrinsic shock value, is a compelling one.

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The play opens with Eva Crane (Sherri Parker Lee), who comes to the prison wanting a job. It's the middle of the Depression and she's desperate for work. Moreover, she believes what the newspapers say, that this prison is a model of reform. Of course, her naive eyes will soon be opened. Boss Whalen (Corin Redgrave), who runs the whole shebang, is a cold-blooded shark. Redgrave's performance is reason enough not to miss this play. His pasty-white Whalen, with oily, slicked-back hair and a wormy mustache crawling over his snarled lip, talks with a dangerous, slow lilt and a wet grin. In rolled-up sleeves and snappy suspenders, he swaggers about his hot, gray office with devilish confidence, erroneously believing that his men are under his control and that women love his loving, as he tells Eva with his face so close to hers she can smell his surely putrid breath.

Under Whalen's control is Canary Jim. Finbar Lynch's Jim is a thin wire of a man with a poet's aching heart and soul. Lynch manages to shape from Jim's often hackneyed lines a smart, compelling and sexy character who's every bit the misunderstood writer that Williams clearly intended him to be. Jim has withstood Whalen's scar-leaving beatings and iron-hard control for ten years, and now he's one month from a parole. If he can hang on, he'll be home free and able to squeal like the inmates already think he does. But he won't be singing about the inmates: He'll sing about Whalen and the beatings, and the poisonous food, and most of all, he'll sing about Klondike, the ironically named torture chamber where four men are literally steamed alive before Jim gets out and gets his chance to tell what's really going on in this "model of reform." To complicate matters further, he falls in love with pretty blond Eva, who's learning the hard way that a job, hard as it may be to come by, is not always worth your heart and soul.

On the other side of the prison are all the inmates, packed dense as rats in their barred cells. There's The Queen (Jude Akuwudike), an openly gay man who carries on about his nails and hair; and Swifty (Mark Dexter), a doomed, middle-class misfit who's waiting to hear from his lawyer. There's Shapiro (Joel Leffert), Mex (Chico Andrade) and Ollie (Dion Graham), each representing a different ethnic group in this little galaxy unto itself. At front and center, though, is Butch (James Black), who wants to hurt Whalen, at any cost. And cost it does.

James Black's Butch is as mean as any cat-killing junkyard dog. He barks orders at the inmates, beats his chest like an ape and grabs his crotch to make sure everyone knows he's got cojones and that he'll use 'em. Of course, he's got his tender boy-side, too. But that only comes out in his dreams, when he conjures his Goldie (Sandra Dickinson), a woman with a cartoon-high voice and dancehall blond hair. Though she probably never loved him at all, he imagines that she's still true to him all these years later.

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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