For this inmate, Beckett's plays unlocked the door

'An Evening of Beckett' with Rick Cluchey at Stage 773

On Wednesday night at Stage 773, the 79-year-old actor Rick Cluchey observed that the plays of Samuel Beckett are all really about incarceration. Well, people will tell you that Beckett plays are all really about all kinds of things. But this particular assertion landed with unusual force, given that Cluchey, who grew up in Chicago and has been brought back to its theater under the auspices of the Shattered Globe Theatre, spent 11 years, 9 months and 14 days of his life in the San Quentin State Prison in California.

People also claim that the arts have saved their lives. Few have a case like that of Cluchey, who (with Kenneth E. Whelan) formed the famous San Quentin Drama Workshop in the late 1950s. That prison theater group, for which Cluchey was a principal writer and actor, overcame myriad institutional rules and restriction to become a potent force in the prison-reform debate of its era. For his part in an armed robbery in Los Angeles when he was 21 years old, Cluchey had been sent to San Quentin under the sentence of life without possibility of parole. But due to Cluchey's work with the theater group, California's Gov. Pat Brown eventually allowed the parole board to consider Cluchey's case. He got out in 1966 and went on to a significant career in the theater, thanks to the theater.

For Beckett aficionados, San Quentin is a legendary locale. "Waiting for Godot" had been thoroughly dismissed after its United States premiere in 1956 in Coconut Grove, Fla., where it had been unwisely billed as a laugh-riot and audiences were bewildered. But when a group of actors took the piece to San Quentin the following year, the prisoners understood why Vladimir and Estragon could not leave. That one-night show, directed by Herbert Blau and filmed as part of a documentary, is perhaps the single most famous moment in the entire Stateside history of the theater of the absurd.

Thereafter, Cluchey got to know Beckett, who had loved what happen at San Quentin and supported the drama workshop. And thus the performance of "Krapp's Last Tape" that makes up the centerpiece of the evening at Stage 773 (Act 2 is a moderated conversation with Cluchey) was directed by Beckett, a few years after Cluchey got out. There are, frankly, not many actors still alive and working who can say that their one-man show was directed by Beckett himself. Beckett died in 1989.

If you don't know "Krapp's Last Tape" (seen most recently in Chicago with Brian Dennehy in the central role), it features a man listening to reel-to-reel tapes he made years before. In this instance, Cluchey actually made those tapes more than 30 years ago, when he worked on the piece with Beckett. And thus when they play this weekend and next on Belmont Avenue in Chicago, Cluchey, like Krapp, really is listening to the sound of himself as a much younger man.

For those of us who have the strapping, full-throated Dennehy in our heads, it's striking how small and vulnerable a figure Cluchey cuts as he sits behind his desk, performing the famous detailed and precise script exactly as its author intended. It is poignant indeed, especially since Cluchey has the kind of jumpiness that those who have been in prison often develop, given that sudden noises can prefigure no good. Cluchey is still unafraid to go right where Beckett wanted him to go back then, and where he better can go now: On the edge of death, looking back on a life of mistakes and acquired wisdom.

A video plays behind Cluchey as he talks in this intimate venue later in the evening (on Wednesday, the moderator was John Jenkins, who also worked with Beckett, but the interlocutors will vary). You can see Cluchey as a much younger man — handsome, powerful, troubled — even as the older, wiser version stands gently before you. It's not quite the seven ages of man unfolding, but it comes darn close.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

'An Evening of Beckett'

When: Through May 12

Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.

Tickets: $20 at 773-327-5252 and sgtheatre.org

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