Florida Studio’s In the Belly of the Beast traces a dark journey.
By Kay Kipling
Most of us would prefer not to think about life in prison and what it does to a man, and we can quite easily push it to the back of our minds. Not so if you see In the Belly of the Beast, now showing at Florida Studio Theatre’s Stage III; it places the subject starkly before our eyes and demands that we not turn away.
The subject, besides the prison experience itself, is Jack Henry Abbott (David Sitler), whom you may remember as the author-convict championed by Norman Mailer in the 1980s, whose brief return to “normal” life ended when he stabbed a New York waiter because of a tragic misunderstanding. His trial for that murder both opens and closes this compelling piece (presented without intermission), but the bulk of the play focuses on Abbott’s incarceration in one institution or another for most of his life, starting with foster homes when he was a young boy.
The descriptions of prison life, taken from Abbott’s book of the same name as the play, are quite graphic, but certainly not in a sensationalistic way. They convincingly reveal how it’s impossible for a “state-raised” man, as Abbott calls himself, to come out of prison and function in the outside world, especially when no meaningful help in that re-entry is provided. In one scene, set in a “blackout” cell, we, the audience, are literally there with Abbott, as the lights go out and he voices his terror and repulsion. We feel it, too.
Sitler is joined onstage by Douglas Coler and Patrick Jones, who play roles ranging from attorneys to prison guards to versions of Abbott himself. All play up to the intensity the story requires, under the direction of Debra Whitfield. In the Belly of the Beast is presented with a minimum of set design, props and staging; its dimly lit story of how a man is shaped into a sort of animal by life in prison is powerful enough to stand simply on its own.
In the Belly of the Beast continues through Feb. 23 at FST’s Stage III; call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.