"Not about Nightingales" Review- The Raven Theatre Company presents Tennessee Williams

The Raven Theatre Company is currently presenting Tennessee Williams “Not about Nightingales”, through through June 4th, at the Raven Theatre Center, 6157 N. Clark. 

Joshua J. Volkers and Brandon Greenhouse

Directed by Michael Menendian, with intriguing choreography by Breon Arzell, clever fight direction by David Woolley, appropriate and witty period costumes by Alaina Moore, clear and unobtrusive lighting by Diane D. Fairchild, and vibrant sound by Heath Hays, this is a 2+ hours long production filled with pathos, cynicism and very strong character delineation. Kudos also for compelling scenic/set design and artistry to Ray Toler, Sydney Archer, John Buranosky and Cathy Darrow, who created a believable place and time on the stage.

 

Written in 1938, it wasn’t discovered for many years, making its world premiere in 1998. While certainly dated in it’s language, which needs to be much rougher and vulgar if it were penned about prison life today, the characters are vivid and vital and the issues just as timely as when Williams’ conceived them, taken as they were then by real events transpiring in a prison in Pennsylvania. Also, while the first act moves too slowly, the portrayals are compelling enough to carry the play forward while holding audience interest throughout.

Kevin Patterson, Rudy Galvin, Tamarus Harvell, Joshua J. Volkers and Jon Beal

We are in a prison. The warden is vain, corrupt and vicious. Times are tough and a young woman, sympathetically played by Sophia Menendian seeks employment as the Warden’s secretary. Working in his office is a self-educating and sympathetic inmate, a would-be poet, soon to be up for parole,  perceived as a stool-pigeon by the other prisoners. A misguided ménage develops as secretary and inmate develop more than sympathy while the warden demonstrates his lechery.

Meanwhile, behind bars, trouble is brewing. The conditions are appalling and the food is terrible. A cellblock of inmates, whom the audience grows to know and love, follow their leader, Butch, into a hunger strike. The warden retaliates by putting them in the hellish punishment cell, “Klondike”, ultimately subjecting them to 150 degrees of steam heat.

Joshua J. Volkers, Rudy Galvin, Tamarus Harvell, Raphael Diaz, Jon Beal, Matthew Garry, Juwan Lockett and Luke Daigle

This reviewer doesn’t want to be a spoiler, so will not reveal the end, but it’s not a cause for rejoicing, if it does deliver some retribution. The final outcome remains uncertain, but the play doesn’t leave one hanging, simply unsettled and reflective, either. Given the horrors of the current penal system, almost 80 years after "Nightingales" was penned, it would have been less than persuasive for Williams’ to come up with an easy answer to force a denouement. Bravery trumps venality, but love does NOT conquer all.

Where the play - and this performance of it - succeeds best is in the pitting of the ruthless “free” man against the brave leaders/ yearning lovers who are the “criminals”. As can be seen more fully developed in his later works, the underdog is clearly portrayed as by far the more fully developed human.

Tamarus Harvell and Brandon Greenhouse

With impassioned performances by Jon Beal, Luke Daigle, Raphael Diaz, Rudy Galvin and Matthew Garry as the cellmates, inspired double performances by Tamarus Harvell as an inmate/ chaplain, a truly complex portrayal by Brandon Greenhouse of the poetic stoolie, and Chuck Spencer crafting a monstrous warden, coupled with the hateful guards  and hapless women characters, this is a rewarding and absorbing look at human misery and venality. The most complete character, both as written and as acted, is Joshua J. Volkers’ “Butch”, the leader of the inmates; Volkers gives us a fully informed and thoroughly invested portrait of human dignity and leadership flowering despite- or perhaps due to- a sordid environment.

Sophia Menendian and Brandon Greenhouse

For information and tickets to all the great programs and presentations by/at The Raven, go to the ravenheatre website  

 All photos by Dean La Prairie

 

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