By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Under the direction of artistic director Mark D. Fleischer, the actors at Plano Rep never rev up any momentum. They start slow and stay that way. The pivotal scene inside Klondike, with four prisoners gasping for air as steam vents roast them alive, is saved only by the performance of Bradley Campbell as hard-timer Butch O'Fallon. Campbell's controlled, sweaty rage recalls George Kennedy's fine moments as the grizzled con in Cool Hand Luke.
Except for Campbell and a few others (notably John Davies, sexy-scary as the warden, Boss Whalen), most of the actors in Nightingales simply need to do another long stretch or two in acting class. As "Canary Jim," the warden's troubled trusty who edits the prison newspaper and yearns to be a writer (it's Jim who invokes the Keats poem alluded to in the title), David Stroh is too soft around the edges to be a leading man yet. He's a one-note actor cast in a major role that calls for greater range.
Not About Nightingales continues at Plano Repertory Theatre through August 4. Call 972-422-7460.
Opposite Stroh in the play's key scenes is his real-life wife, Melanie, playing the warden's secretary, Eva, who takes the job thinking she's been hired by a "model institution" only to find out too quickly that it's a chamber of horrors. Eva and Canary Jim fall in love and imagine life together outside prison walls. Their stolen moments are written as feverish escapes from tedium, but, oddly, the Strohs don't manage to convey any convincing chemistry together.
Annoying in the extreme is actress Kelly Grandjean, who plays two roles (both badly) in Nightingales. She's not at all credible wearing a gray wig and a ridiculous bustle as an elderly mother of a prisoner who's gone "stir-bugs" from torture. She's even less believable as "Goldie," a sexy vamp who appears in the imaginary dream life of Butch. Grandjean's thick, phlegmy, sometimes crackly voice brings to mind nails and chalkboards.
There's only one minority actor in this production's large cast. He's Nicholas Cormier III as Ollie, a well-liked prisoner sent to his death in Klondike. If it was the director's decision to have Ollie speak in a chitlin' accent, it was a bad one.
Too bad Plano Rep didn't do better by Tennessee Williams. Not About Nightingalesis a gem, full of angry agitprop tirades about tyranny (at a time in history that saw the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, both mentioned in the play). But it's also laced with Williams' sly homoeroticism and dark wit. "I'm what they call an agnostic," one prisoner tells another. "Oh," says his pal, "you mean Episcopalian?"
There are also hints at themes that will recur in later Williams plays, what one critic writing about Nightingales' London production called the playwright's obsession with "charged inevitability." In the prison play, it's Butch, finally getting a face-off with Boss Whalen, the warden he hates. "It's been you and me a long time," Butch tells the Boss. In A Streetcar Named Desire, written nine years later, Stanley will utter those same words to a terrified Blanche DuBois. In both plays, they're a cue for unspeakable acts.