Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Not About Nightingales"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Larry Stark


"Not About Nightingales"

by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Jason Southerland

Composer Jack Aaronson
Set Design by Laura McPherson
Costume Design by Karen Gilmer
Lighting Designer John R. Malinowski
Stage Manager Dani Snyder

Boss Whalen......................................Stephen Benson
Eva.......................................................Eileen Nugent
Canary Jim............................................John Carozzo
Butch.......................................................Bill Mootos
Queen.........................................................Bill Salem
Joe...................................................Gerardo Franklin
Ollie.................................................Wesley L. Taylor
Sailor Jack/Reverend...........................Forrest Walker
Swifty.............................................Jason Schuchman
McBurney/Chaplain...............................Fred Robbins
Mrs. Bristol.........................................Shelley Brown
Goldie.....................................................Liz Robbins
Schultz................................................Carl Schwaber

It's as though each actor in the cast, personally, made a commitment to give the best possible performance of which they were capable to "Not About Nightingales" --- perhaps to honor a young playwright who died too early to be able to sit in on rehearsals and make changes or cuts. Very few cuts would be necessary in this time-capsule script that has remained unchanged since 1938, and the intensely honest acting everywhere makes any quibbling irrelevant. Director Jason Southerland's Boston Theatre Works company has brought a complicated, many-layered young play vibrantly to life.

In a huge black-box space on the second floor next to the Huntington Theatre Southerland has banked the audience in three long rows each side of a football field, with the office of a prison warden at one end, the cells of inmates at the other. Impersonal cruelties decided at one end meet defiant demands for dignity at the other, with a pair of unexpected lovers caught in the middle. There are "film noir" hints and a late-thirties sensibility about penal policies that seems quaint in the age of "Oz"; nevertheless the confrontations of humanity against raw power are movingly absorbing.

Stephen Benson plays a warden whose total power has corrupted him totally, his offhand indifference to human suffering evident in the confident gusto in everything he does. In contrast, Eileen Nugent plays a young woman who believes Sunday Supplement stories about rehabilitation when she takes a needed job as a stenographer, coming to and from this island prison every day, and willing to keep her mouth shut about everything she learns of corruption and cruelty. It is, after all, the depth of the Depression, and a job, any job is, after all, a job. Her development, stunningly realized, becomes the fulcrum for the play.

John Carozza is the swing figure, Canary Jim --- a trusty who carries messages and information between the office and the cells, and assuaging the contempt from both sides with a love of language and four-letter words. Writing kiss-ass editorials for the prison newspaper, his dream is to make a parole the warden controls, and then to go straight to the newspapers to spill his repressed vindictive guts about everything he knows, everything he has endured.

Everything that happens in that office is luminously phrased and timed, with meanings in every pause and flick of the eyes. These characters melt out of initial assumptions, line by line, until they stand etched in contrasting, believable steel.

Real steel cages in the opposite playing area contain the grumbling unrest of convicts fed on beans, spaghetti and rotting hamburger from which the warden skims kickbacks. Threats of solitary and beatings --- Sailor Jack (Forrest Walter) has come back raving mad from a stay there --- and worse only repress rage. But Bill Mootos is the outspoken spokesman of that rage, because he and Canary Jim once lived through the Warden's ultimate weapon, a killer hothouse that can roast a man to submission, or death.

Mootos' Dutch rules a four-inmate cell with an iron hand and a straight-razor, while insisting his "avenging angels" will one day bring the warden, Canary Jim, and bad-cop Schultz (Carl Schwaber) to quick kangaroo-court justice. He and his minions are all three-dimensional individuals sketched with economic clarity. Gerardo Franklin's Joe is a stalwart lieutenant; Wesley Lawrence Taylor's Ollie) is calmed by his faith in the Lord; Bill Salem's Queen mourns the loss of the cuticle-scissors that kept his pride alive; Sailor Jack, and then the new guy Swifty (Jason Schuchman) are quickly broken by solitary. All of them, however, unite for a hunger strike that excites newspaper spotlights, and precipitates the final solution you can probably guess.

What keeps all this from brave B-Movie status is the vibrant clarity and believable interaction of characters honestly acted, even in the tiniest roles. Dutch has dreams of his girl Goldie, and Liz Robbins is everything ten years of prison dreaming could make her. Fred Robbins is that good "screw" who can cooperate rather than fight with his charges. Shelley Brown's early intercessions on behalf of her son Sailor Jack are the first, heart-tugging hints that the Sunday Supplements might have gotten things wrong. There are no small actors here.

Tom Williams never learned to make things easy for a theatre's technical staff, and this young play is no exception. Jack Aaronson's Music and Matt Griffin's Sound Design mix '30s music and speech-snatches with echoes of steel on steel. Laura McPherson's Set calls for occasionally difficult set-changes in total darkness, and the action in opposing end-zones is best seen from the 50-yard-line.

But much of the physical heavy-work here is masked by atmospheric sounds and marching, and the action flows from line to scene to revelation to surprise that demands engrossing interest. It is easy to see that Tom, the kid who wrote "Not About Nightingales" grew into that Tennessee Williams who wrote "Night of The Iguana" which is still playing over in Somerville. You should catch both if you possibly can, because in each the acting is equal to the writer's imagination.

Love,
===Anon.


"Not About Nightingales" (till 25 June)
BOSTON THEATRE WORKS
Studio 210 at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON
1(617) 824-8000

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide

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