HOUSTON -- Well, the reviews are in. Not About Nightingales, an obscure early effort by Tennessee Williams being given its world premiere by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and Corin and Vanessa Redgrave's Moving Theatre, in association with Houston's Alley Theatre, received enthusiastic notices.
At least says Houston radio personality Dean Dalton. This past week, the host of "The Morning Show" on KUHF 88.7 FM, a nonprofit station licensed to the University of Houston, was over England offering reports about the show and about the three Alley actors, James Black, Sherri Parker Lee, and Noble Shropshire, who are part of the international cast. With nearly 200,000 listeners, KUHF has the largest audience for classical music and National Public Radio news in Texas, and Dalton was the only Houston media person covering the goings-on first-hand. "It's not an easy evening at the theater," Dalton told listeners last Friday, March 6, the day after the show had opened at the National's Cottesloe Theatre in London (it runs through May). "But it's a great evening at the theater."
Not About Nightingales was written in 1938 when Williams was in his late twenties and a playwrighting student at University of Iowa, and when he still went by his given first name, Tom. A prison drama arguing against inhumane conditions, it is based on actual events involving rebellious inmates, a hunger strike, and sadistic punishment. It was discovered by Vanessa Redgrave at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin; the Ranson Center houses extensive Williams archives, including manuscripts form approximately 1,000 works. Redgrave came across it in 1996 while in Houston during the first collaboration between the Alley and Moving Theatres: repertory productions of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.Not About Nightingales marks the Alley's initial relationship with the Royal National.
Dalton read laudatory excerpts from a review in The Evening Standard which reinforced his own opinion that the play is unlike anything else Williams wrote: that while it gave hints of the lyricism, tenderness, and romance that would imbue his later work, it was more polemical, more political, more pragmatic than the rest of his oeuvre. Calling it "gut-wrenching," Dalton said he and critics alike believed it wasn't merely the flawed work of young genius, but a devastating call-to-arms, even if the second act shows too little and tells too much.
The production was also apparently well-received. Trevor Nunn, who heads the Royal National, directed. Playing a ruthless warden, Corin Redgrave leads the cast of 18. The Alley has announced it will import the production to Houston. But it needs to find some $250,000 outside of its budget to do so, said Dalton, having earlier conferred with Alley artistic director Greg Boyd and managing director Paul Tetrault, both of whom joined Dalton in London not just for the show but to be part of a week-long London tour offered to Alley patrons who could afford the $3,000 trip. What's more, the London set is configured in such a way that it won't fit on either of the Alley's two stages, so an alternative venue would most likely have to be found. Dalton said the Alley hopes to work out all such considerations and mount it as-is cast, creative team, technical crew coming over perhaps this summer.
-- By Peter Szatmary