Not About Nightingales @ Last Drop Pub and Brewery
Wednesday, September 23, 2020
When the audience is ushered into the Last Drop Pub and Brewery’s rear courtyard area, they are greeted by a set that is split into three sections. On one side, four benches in front of a metal fence represent a prison cell, on the other side is a small office space. These two sections are separated by a small elevated platform in the centre of the performance space.
There is a man wearing a straitjacket sitting on the elevated platform, and he is soon joined by a lady who sits at the edge of the platform, patiently waiting. A man in a blue uniform enters, sweeping the floor. More men in blue uniforms join him, some just going about their business, others playing instruments such as a guitar and a harmonica. The straitjacketed man sings. Eventually they all dissipate, the lights go down, and the play begins.
Not About Nightingales is based on the true experiences of inmates of a prison in Pennsylvania, who protested their living conditions with a hunger strike. Although Tennessee Williams wrote the play in 1938, it remained undiscovered until the 1990s, and was first produced in 1998. This version presented by Life on Hold Productions and directed by Sarah Christiner, is often a brutal play, with moments of light and hope sprinkled throughout.
There are many outstanding performances in this production, but actors Chris Kennedy and Phil Barnett are the clear standouts. Chris Kennedy assumes the role of inmate “Canary” Jim Alison, a former grifter who works closely with the prison’s warden in order to shave time off his sentence; while Phil Barnett plays Butch O’Fallon, another inmate who assumes a leadership role amongst the prisoners. Kennedy and Barnett perform terrifically alongside each other, revealing their complicated history to the audience.
Meanwhile, Nicole Miller embodies the role of Eva Crane, the prison’s new stenographer. Miller’s performance is the emotional core of the piece, and her chemistry with Kennedy’s Jim Alison is beautifully layered. While less front-and-centre, Trevor Dhu’s performance as Queen, and Lliam Gregory’s performances as both the booming and terrifying prison guard Mr. Schultz and the reserved Chaplain also stood out.
John Woolrych’s lighting design is quite subtle but very effective, lighting the stage in cold white, granting it an oppressive atmosphere of concrete and metal, which was well-suited to the prison setting. Occasionally a spinning mover would pass across the set, representing a distant watchtower, with some other dramatic techniques utilised towards the play’s conclusion.
The use of live sound was also very effective, with prison guards banging batons on metal, inmates being beaten with lengths of hose, and the live musical interludes where inmates bang plates and cups together while jovially singing together. It must be noted that the tech operation from Sarah Christener and Kate O’Sullivan was always on point. The cast and crew came together to do an excellent joint effort on the costumes and makeup, with the standout being the striking blue uniforms worn by the inmates.
Not About Nightingales is a shockingly resonant production, raising provocative questions about the point and purpose of the prison system and the true meaning of justice. The cast and crew of Life on Hold Productions did a fantastic job of bringing Tennessee Williams’ nearly century old script to life.