Tennessee Williams often wrote about conflicted, familial relationships embedded in the culture of the Deep South. But one of his earliest plays, Not About Nightingales, currently being presented by the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans, is not typical of his work. As a student at the University of Iowa in 1938, Williams was assigned to write a “living newspaper” play and chose to dramatize horrific events that had taken place at Holmesburg County Prison in Philadelphia, following a hunger strike.

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Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Art Center’s high ceilings and exposed brick walls striped with prison bars create the foreboding atmosphere where inmates are penned like animals. In the show’s opening, a tour guide on a passing excursion boat describes the penal institution as “dynamite-proof, escape-proof.” Echoing sound effects including clanging iron doors, alarms, guard announcements and prisoners’ desperate howls, heighten the sense of doom. In the midst of the Great Depression, Warden Whalen (Joseph Furnari) wields unlimited power over 3,500 offenders, some convicted of minor crimes.

In the first scene, Mrs. Brisol (Ann Dalrymple) arrives from Wisconsin alarmed by her son’s recent letters. She does not know Jack (Adler Hyatt) has gone mad after three days locked in a torture chamber known as Klondike. Waiting beside her in the warden’s office, Eva Crane (Nicole Himel), anxiously awaits an interview for a secretarial job. The women were misled by a newspaper story describing the prison’s emphasis on rehabilitation. Jim Allison (Zeb Hollins III), a model convict, wrote glowing editorials regarding its enlightened approach and nutritious meal program so his good behavior might result in parole.

Jim tells Eva that the main employment qualification is the ability to keep one’s mouth shut about what really goes on at the prison. Vacillating between blind acceptance and desperation, Jim escapes through “intellectual emancipation.” Eva and Jim soon develop rapport, and the warden tries to corral her in a closet, she quickly transforms from timid to terrified.

Hall C’s inmates develop camaraderie while struggling against boredom, crowding, inedible food and the prospect of blood-boiling steam heat. Swifty (Christopher Robinson), who had been training to compete in the Olympics, can’t tolerate being cooped up in the small, croweded cell. Believing he was railroaded, he expects to be released on appeal, but Butch O’Fallon (Sean Richmond), a leader among prisoners, kills any notion of Swifty being released. “A con ain’t a human being,” Butch says. “A con’s a con. He’s stuck here and the world’s forgot him.” Butch challenges the men to start a hunger strike to bring public attention to their plight.

Furnari portrays Whalen as a good old boy, nonchalant about subjecting prisoners to temperatures up to 150 degrees. As prisoners gasp for air and beg for water, he peruses horse racing results.

Richmond gives an amazing performance as the indomitable ringleader who defies authority and death. Kebron Woodfin sympathetically plays Ollie, a popular inmate who is brutalized.

“A guy can use his brain two ways,” Jim says. “He can make it a wall to shut him in from the world or a great big door to let him out.”

Not About Nightingales

Dec. 15-16

8 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
Tickets $20-$25