IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST: LETTERS FROM PRISON, Journeymen, at Chicago Dramatists. First unleashed at Wisdom Bridge, Jack Henry Abbott's agonizing prison memoir still hurts to hear. Detailing the relentless miseries of a murderer who was free for only nine months over a 25-year period, his writings are interspersed with scenes from his second trial for murder. (In the 70s Norman Mailer and others argued that Abbott was too good a writer to be jailed; released in 1981, he then killed a waiter in an argument over using the restroom.)
As powerfully revived by the Journeymen (celebrated for their Angels in America and Edward II) and director Frank Pullen, this is a total immersion that steeps us in Abbott's no-win life, a collage of reform schools, foster homes, halfway houses, solitary confinement, and starvation diets. They all helped create this "state-raised convict," making him either unfit or unprepared to live outside a prison.
Mark L. Montgomery portrays Abbott as a raw nerve, revealing the aggression and paranoia that served him well behind bars but badly when free. Circling Montgomery like attack dogs, Eric Andrade and Jerry Hlava play everything from trial attorneys to the young women Abbott picks up before his second murder. These meaty 80 minutes provide more than enough material to debate whether Abbott was a self-made or prison-trained killer. About the stunning acting, however, there can be no argument.