Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Not about Nightingales

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Not about Nightingales

Article excerpt

The Alley Theater in Houston has scored the theater coup of the year by coproducing with England's Royal National Theatre the world premiere of a Tennessee Williams play that has languished unproduced for 50 years. A brutal and upsetting prison drama, Not About Nightingales packs a three-part punch: It's a 1930s-style "living newspaper" expose of inhumane prison conditions; it's an early study of themes that would emerge full-blown in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; and it's a powerhouse dramatic spectacle staged by Trevor Nunn, world famous for directing Cats and Sunset Boulevard. Following its London debut, the production opened last month in Houston for a three-week run that concluded July 3. Surely that won't be the end of Not About Nightingales. Far from being an academic footnote, it forces us to reconsider what we know about the gay playwright, who helped shape 20th-century American drama.

The legend of Not About Nightingales will forever be inseparable from the stow of this triumphant first production. While preparing to perform in a 1989 London production of Orpheus Descending, Vanessa Redgrave came upon the author's preface mentioning an earlier play filled with "violence and horror." Written in 1938, when Williams was 27, the play was inspired by newspaper reports of a Pennsylvania prison where convicts on a hunger strike were locked in a steam-heated cell called "the Klondike" and four of them were roasted alive. Redgrave tracked down a copy from the Williams estate in 1993, shortly after she'd founded the Moving Theatre with her brother, Corin. In 1996, during the company's residency at the Alley Theater, Redgrave persuaded the Alley to produce it with Nunn, who also runs the National Theatre.

The play sets the thuggish warden, Boss Whalen (Corin Redgrave), against Butch O'Fallon (James Black), the cellblock tyrant who terrorizes his fellow inmates into striking for better food. …

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