IN HIS REMARKABLE writings on prison life, lifelong prisoner and convicted murderer Jack Henry Abbott tried to relate his alien experience, telling us that "what you do not understand is only what you cannot."

"In the Belly of the Beast," Wisdom Bridge Theater's fierce dramatization of Abbott's life and words, goes a long way toward making us understand, thrusting us into the black pit of the solitary cell, describing in heart-stopping, almost poetic detail how it is to kill a man, musing on the nature of violence and mercy.

Inaugurating the Free Theater at the Kennedy Center, Chicago's Wisdom Bridge offers a disturbing slice of recent history. Abbott, a gifted writer, was given a spectacular second chance when he became a protege of Norman Mailer, who helped get him paroled. But this drama says Abbott was unprepared for the society of others, and was driven to kill again, knifing a New York waiter on July 18, 1981 -- a bitter irony, as it was the day before he would be pronounced "a literary giant" by the New York Times Book Review.

Drawing from letters, trial transcripts, interviews and Abbott's own remarkable memoir (also called "In the Belly of the Beast"), adaptor/director Robert Falls depicts with rapid immediacy how Abbott was expelled "from the belly of his mother, directly into the belly of the beast," impressionistically tracing the path of Abbott's life through the succession of prison cells that were to be his home for 24 of his 38 years (he's still there.) We hurtle with Abbott from abusive foster home to reform school through the prison universe with its concentric circles of hell, to the tantalizing brush with freedom that proved too much for this permanent outsider.

Because Abbott "reacts to pain like a rattlesnake," lacking the restraining mechanisms taught by society, responding instantly to imagined danger with force, actor William Petersen's frighteningly intense portrayal is all coiled violence -- at any moment he may lash out, hurling a folding chair against the wall, bashing his head against a file cabinet, his measured, gentle voice rising to the equivalent of a sustained feral howl. Actors Tim Halligan and Peter Aylward expertly assume a number of other roles in Abbott's story.

The grim prison atmosphere of Robert Falls' evocatively stark set and lighting is accentuated by the soon-forgotten discomfort of the hard bleacher seats. (Bring a stadium cushion.) Falls creates some startling visual effects -- at one point the prison wall moves toward the audience, creating a sense of suffocating claustrophobia as Abbott describes solitary confinement; in the "strip cell," we are plunged into total blackness as Abbott describes horrific conditions which still exist.

Ninety minutes spent "In the Belly of the Beast" is bound to make your life and freedom seem tangible -- and precious.