In 1938, when Tom Williams read the newspaper article reporting a riot and prisoner torture in a Philadelphia County prison which was to be the basis for his fourth full length play, Not About Nightingales, he was a talented young playwright, but a playwright still struggling to find his own unique voice. With Nightingales he would begin the metamorphosis from Tom to Tennessee, though he would wait almost another decade for the professional and artistic success of A Streetcar Named Desire and its Pulitzer Prize, his first.
Not About Nightingales remained hidden in Williams's archives for almost 60 years, until it was discovered by Vanessa Redgrave, who was instrumental in arranging two world class productions of the play in 1998 by the Royal National Theatre, the Moving Theatre, and Houston's Alley Theatre. For her efforts, Ms. Redgrave deserves our gratitude.
It is indeed a world class production of Not About Nightingales which opened last night at Circle in The Square. The uniformly dazzling performances by its British and American cast of 18 and the superb physical production more than compensate for the disappointment we feel on realizing that Nightingales as a play contains few of the emotional pyrotechnics and little of the theatrical magic of Williams's later works. In Not About Nightingales we see the young Williams who has not yet learned how to distill emotions to their essence, or how to both figuratively and literally tell the truth. This Williams is adept at telling us what is going on, but cannot yet guide us in our attempt to understand the why of it all.
Here the young Williams is writing on the surface, in genre, and he gives us his spin on what, in the ensuing 60 years, has become the stereotypical prison riot story. We are presented with the corrupt and immoral prison warden, the heroine willing to sacrifice her honor for the man she loves, the stoic anti-hero barely containing his emotions in a cage of intellect, enduring his incarceration, and the hardened convict, using his status in the prison hierarchy to promote a personal agenda of revenge. That a contemporary audience can sit attentively through three hours of this - no coughing, no fidgeting - is testament to the genius of Trevor Nunn's direction and the intense fascination of watching this cast putting in a good night's work.
Sherri Parker Lee's heroine, Eva Crane, is a qualified study of desperation, unexpected attraction, and finally a small, fragile hope. With Ms. Lee, meaning is in the details and, with everything else going on around her, a sharp eye and a good intuition will reap untold rewards if you are quick enough to catch the way she handles a cup of coffee, the set of her back as she sits at her desk, a hand impulsively laid on a shoulder, or any of the thousand other little moments, which taken together express a finely drawn character.
James Black's Butch O'Fallon, a convict willing to sacrifice both his own and other prisoner's lives in his thirst for revenge - here taking the form of a hunger strike as a demand for justice from a system which summarily dismisses and punishes all challenges to its authority - is loud, abrasive, abusive, and in every way exactly what O'Fallon needs to be. Black races purposefully and triumphantly through a role filled with stumbling blocks, never setting a foot wrong and in the process giving one of the memorable performances of this season.
Finbar Lynch's Canary Jim is the still, threateningly quiet eye of Nightingales' hurricane. Canary Jim is a man superior to, but at the mercy of the brutal men surrounding him. Every word must be judiciously chosen, every action evaluated for its potential to delay his upcoming parole. Lynch prowls the stage ever in a state of high tension, as if his guts had been tied in knots by fear for so long he has forgotten any other way. Every breath tastes the air for any change in temper. To play a scene at this pitch is not difficult for any good actor. To sustain it through all its variations over the course of an evening is, I would have said prior to witnessing Mr. Lynch's performance, impossible. Exhilarating and exhausting.
To watch Corin Redgrave as "Boss" Whalen is to understand why great British actors have the reputations they do. From his first entrance he is on a roll, pulling out all the stops in a performance that, for its sheer energy and grand manner, puts every other actor in a 200-mile radius to shame. Redgrave's Whalen is your nice, jovial, unassuming Uncle - the one who always gave you what you really wanted for your birthday - who just happens to be the personification of corrupt, absolute power, greed, and evil. To borrow a simple but eloquent and in this case apt phrase from one young audience member, "he's f***ing awesome!"
Also of note, the Goldie of Sandra Searles Dickinson is ethereal perfection, ringing as true as crystal champagne flutes in a wedding toast. Noble Shropshire's Reverend Hooker is painfully real, as is the Ollie of Dion Graham.
The full metal set designed by Richard Hoover and the cruel and unusual lighting by Chris Parry results in one of the most effective uses of Circle in The Square's stage seen in many years. The overall effect is ably abetted by the subtle but noticeably present sound design of Christopher Shutt. The costumes, by Karyl Newman, and the music, by Steven Edis, don't interfere much with the proceedings, which is more than can be said for the awkward and poorly realized fights by Malcolm Ranson.
Not About Nightingales, a play by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Starring Corin Redgrave, Finbar Lynch, James Black, and Sherri Lee Parker.
Audience: Maybe inappropriate for children 13 and younger. Children under 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours with one intermission occurring 90 minutes into the production
Theatre: Circle in The Square, 1633 Broadway, New York, NY 10019 (Between Broadway & 8th Avenue at 50th Street)
Dates and Times: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 P.M., Wednesday and Saturday at 2 P.M., Sunday at 3 P.M. This is a strictly limited engagement ending June 27, 1999.
Ticket Prices: All tickets $65
Tickets by Phone: Tele-charge at (212)239-6200, or outside the NY metro area (800)545-2559, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Tickets by E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tickets in person: Circle In The Square Box Office Hours Monday through Saturday 10 A.M. to 8 P.M. Saturday Noon to 6 P.M. Sunday Closed
Tickets by snail mail: Not About Nightingales, PO Box 998, Times Square
Station, New York, NY 10108-0998