Leonard Manzella’s Cages, directed by Kat Sparks, offers an examination of institutionalization that will remain with you beyond the performance. Based on Manzella’s true experiences, the play introduces audiences to five maximum-security prison inmates and the authorities charged with their care as seen through the eyes of Dr. Tom Morri, the psychologist assigned to the most desperate among them.
Marc Pouhe, Ronnie Williams, Jay Windsor, Omarr Cantu, and Sam Domino comprise a group of inmates in secure lockup, each in turn presenting the story of his incarceration. We see spotlight center-stage monologues of each man’s life before prison, describing the events that landed him there. Cliff Kammerdiener as overzealous corrections officer Caine, and Regan Goins as Morri’s supervisor Dr. Sally Stein, complete the eight-member cast.
At issue is a re-evaluation of the purpose of prisons, whom they are intended to serve, and how best to accomplish that objective. Instances of bureaucratic indifference and harsh treatment suggest an indictment of the prison system generally. And yet, it remains difficult to argue that most of these inmates aren’t exactly where they belong – locked away from the public.
All the performances are strong. Joe Bunner is so ideally cast as compassionate caregiver and jaded cynic that one forgets he’s an actor; he is the doctor. Williams, Windsor, Cantu, and Domino play together wonderfully in ensemble against the doctor’s casual authority, and each shines individually during solo moments of exposition, reminding us of how easily - given a single momentary poor choice - any of us could be in their place. Pouhe hypnotizes in a layered portrayal of a man battling internal demons, alternating between the monster living inside of him and the frightened child terrified of the monster. Goins finds moments of compelling drama during Act II in the wake of unsettling acts witnessed by her character. Kammerdiener artfully presents a cocksure prison guard as the personification of organizational mishandling.
Despite the serious subject matter, isolated moments of genuine humor gave Saturday night’s capacity house cause for bursts of laughter.
The set is simple and the blocking understandably contained, yet the effect is rivetingly dramatic, with each inmate stationed for most of the performance in his own small “cage” designed by Tomas Salas to suggest tight confinement while allowing the audience to clearly view the performances within.
Following curtain at the performance I attended, the playwright and cast engaged in a Q&A with audience members wishing to participate, at which the realities of penal institutions were discussed. Manzella is uniquely qualified to present this topic, having acted in both stage and film in addition to his work as a prison psychologist. His back-and-forth discussion with the audience was a tremendous contribution to the overall experience.
Cages, under the direction of Kat Sparks is a "don't miss" moment in the landscape of Austin arts.
Leonard Manzella’s Cages is presented by Southwest Theater Productions.
Santa Cruz Theater, 1805 E 7th St, Austin Texas 78702 (East 7th St. And Chicon St., across from Huston Tillotson University)