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Doing time on death row: Creighton University theater gives life to “Dead Man Walking”


I don’t go to a lot of theater, but I go to enough to have a good sense for what good theater looks and sounds like, and one of the better amateur productions I’ve ever seen was the Creighton University staging of the Tim Robbins play, Dead Man Walking, from some years ago.  It’s hard to go wrong with this gripping material, but then again I’ve seen enough strong source material mishandled that I know anything can be done badly.  This was a case of fully realizing a play’s potential.  The play, like the movie Robbin wrote and directed, is based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean about her transformative experience counseling a death row inmate that basically began what’s turned into her nationwide crusade against capital punishment.  I see now that Dead Man Walking has been adapted into an opera as well, which doesn’t surprise me because the dramatic moments and thematic concerns and emotional upheavals in the story certainly lend themselves to such expressive treatment.  I hope the opera is staged one day where I live, Omaha, which is also the home to Creighton University, a Jesuit school with a fine reputation for its professional colleges. Its liberal arts offerings, including theater, ethics, social entrepreneurship, and journalism, are quite strong, too.

Doing time on death row: Creighton University theater gives life to “Dead Man Walking”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

To kill or not to kill? That question hovers over every moment of Dead Man Walking, the new Tim Robbins play that covers similar ground as the actor-filmmaker’s acclaimed 1996 film of the same name. In this meditation on the death penalty, the ramifications of taking one life for another is considered. Do we have the right to? Is it justice or revenge? Can execution ever be meted out fairly?

The play, making its Omaha premiere in a Creighton University main stage production opening this weekend, forces viewers to confront a subject most would rather not contemplate. And the humanistic way it presents this struggle ensures that it goes beyond being mere polemics or abstraction. It is high drama truthfully distilled in the very real conflict of a convicted murderer’s life hanging in the balance. Will ending his life compensate for the lives he took? Does he deserve to die? Did his victims? The dilemma only grows deeper when the killer shows remorse. Too late it turns out. No matter what side you’re on before the play, you won’t come out of it unaffected after witnessing a night of theater in which an execution by lethal injection is enacted before your very eyes.

“It’s very riveting. I mean, we’re going to execute somebody on stage,” said the show’s director Alan Klem, CU assistant professor of theater. “I hope to leave the audience with the same feeling I had after reading the play, and that is — I can’t ignore this. I think what the playwright is trying to get across is that we can’t take a passive view point on this issue. It’s better to take a strong stance, one way or the other, than to say, ‘It doesn’t concern me.’ It does concern us. Basically, we’re shedding light on executions, which are carried out at midnight when people are asleep. Why do do it then? Because the state doesn’t want you to know what it’s like. Death row is a terrible, terrible place. We’re trying to recreate that feeling the best we can that this is a terrible, terrible place.”

After the final curtain on opening night, a panel discussion on the death penalty follows. The panel includes Creighton law professor Christine Wiseman, a vocal death penalty opponent who, in 1995, exhausted the appeals process on behalf of Texas death row inmate Billy Conn Gardner. Serious questions were raised about his arrest, trial and murder conviction, but not enough to stop his execution.

What better forum for this discussion than a Jesuit institution with its historical social justice mission? At Robbins’ behest, a draft of the unpublished play has been offered to select, mostly Jesuit, colleges and universities to be performed during the 2004-2005 academic year. It’s part of his Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, whose intent is to elicit dialogue on capital punishment, an ugly reality usually shrouded in the dark of night, far away from public scrutiny.

Creighton is among only a few school’s mounting a production of Dead Man this year. The school’s Department of Fine and Performing arts is staging its version over seven nights in February and March. Show dates and times are: Thursday through Saturday, February 24 through 26, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, February 27 at 2 p.m.; and Thursday through Saturday, March 3 through 6, at 7:30 p.m. The show’s on-campus venue is the Lied Education Center for the Arts at 24th and Cass.

Both the play and movie are based on the best-selling book by Sister Helen Prejean, whose real life story recounts her 1980s experience as spiritual advisor to Angola State Prison (La.) death row inmate Patrick Sonnier. He was ultimately put to death. In her book and in Robbins’ adaptations, the one constant is a convicted killer awaits his reckoning via a lethal injection date. Alone, with no prayer of his sentence being commuted, he makes a desperate plea for help, A naive but caring nun answers the call — setting in motion events neither seems prepared to handle.

 

 

 

 

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Just as there’s no doubt where the protagonist, Prejean, stands on the issue, it’s clear Robbins vehemently opposes the death penalty, but to his credit, he doesn’t allow his drama to turn political diatribe. “It tries to give both sides of the issue,” Klem said. “It’s important it not come off as a sermon.” Indeed, a reading of the play reveals a balanced work delineating how people find moral, Biblical mandates for or against execution. While the troubling and divisive themes are ever-present, the core conflict is the tug-of-war between Prejean and her soon-to-be-put-to-death charge, Matthew Poncelot. It is a struggle between her unconditional love and his unrepentant heart. Between her search for the truth and his denial of it.

The conflict is also an internal one, within the mind of Prejean, whose self-reflective stream of consciousness drives and defines the action. She becomes our witness, our guide and our narrator to the events that unfold. She even “preaches to the audience, trying to open their eyes,” said the actress playing her, CU senior Jeanne Tiehen. “But she doesn’t come down on them. It’s more like, ‘Listen to this story.’ It’s all about awakening the discussion about capital punishment.”

At times, we’re privileged to hear Prejean’s innermost misgivings. She’s plagued too by the harsh but righteous anger of the victims’ parents and the cynical disapproval of the victims’ themselves, who remind us of promising young lives violently cut short. The insistent voices and haunting figures receive expressionistic treatment by Klem, who with CU theater coordinator and technical director Bill Van Deest, has come up with a striking set dominated by a depressive death row cell block below, where the condemned fret and wait, and a surrealistic catwalk above, from where the dead look down. All is black save for the rust-toned bars and handrails. Adding context are stark, projected images on an overhead screen. Together with the disturbing, fated presence of Poncelot, a sneering, conniving hate-monger bursting with pent-up anger, fear and regret, it becomes an existential space.

At first, Poncelot tries playing Prejean the way he has everyone else. After all, she comes to the prison and criminal justice system as an innocent. When he sees she has, as Klem calls it, “backbone,” he begins to respect her. Before she knows it, she finds herself in the uncomfortable position of being an advocate and confessor for a monster. Along the way, she makes enemies. But she cannot turn back.

In the eyes of Tiehen, a CU senior theater arts major whose experience researching, rehearsing and performing the role is her thesis project, Prejean is like Alice in the rabbit hole. “Once she falls, she just keeps going and going, and what I like about this script is that as soon as she gets a grasp of one thing, all of a sudden she’s dealt a whole new layer of challenges, and it’s overwhelming. There’s plenty of points in the play when she goes, ‘What am I doing here?’ It’s kind of like she’s propelled along by events. It gives you a real sense for how this thing steamrolled. There’s not a moment’s rest. And there is no getting off for her.”

So, why does Prejean stay the course? “She sees this person who needs help and when he turns to her for it, she can’t turn away from that,” Tiehen said. “She feels a responsibility for this guy’s soul. For his well-being. For his life.” Klem said, “She becomes not only a tower of strength for him, but also the conscience for him.”

Poncelot is played by CU senior Rusty Perry, a regular at the Millennium Theater, He feels the condemned man finally opens up to Prejean out of “his trust” in her. “She sort of pulls it out of him. When he first meets with her, he blows smoke in her face. He doesn’t feel she deserves any more consideration than anyone else. Yet she still cares for him,” he said. “He’s like one of the strays she took in as a child. It’s his first experience of love — of someone caring for his life.”

For Tiehen, a veteran of such CU productions as Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, Prejean is a woman to admire and a character to covet. “She’s an amazing person. Her involvement in the movement just happened, and rather than running away from it — she embraced it. You don’t find many female characters like her that are intelligent and strong, and still warm and compassionate.” She said playing a public figure in Prejean, now an icon in the fight to abolish the death penalty, is “daunting. Here is this woman who’s become such a strong face and force in the movement…and how do I still make her somebody that’s approachable and not just a figurehead?” The key, she said, is expressing her “compassion and her faith something good will come out of this.”

Then there’s the fact that at the time of these events, Prejean was an unknown navigating her way through a crazy system that, once its wheels were set in motion to put someone to death, it could not be stopped. “She’s kind of the Everyman in the situation,” Tiehen said. “She’s scared. She’s frustrated. She gets angry. She’s not someone who’s just pious, tempered and passive all the time.” She’s real.

Tackling a part and a piece as heavy as this, Tiehen said, is taxing. “It’s extremely challenging. It’s demanding a lot of me, and all of us. But it’s been very educational to chronicle the journey of this process. It’s a huge opportunity.”

Klem said cast and crew have tried keeping things light in rehearsal. “It’s not an easy play to do. But even as heavy as it is, you’ve still got to have fun doing it.” Aside from the potent themes, he said its cinematic structure — with short, impressionist scenes and quick transitions — makes it “difficult to stage.”

In a play filled with “religious connotations” that pose Old Testament eye-for-an-eye arguments versus New Testament turn-the-other-cheek admonitions, “there is a communion going on,” Klem said. “It’s almost like a liturgy in a sense.” Amen.

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