Dead Man Walking

DDA Mainstage
Kenan Theatre, UNC
Closed April 15

Any theatrical staging of Dead Man Walking must confront special challenges. Tim Robbins’ famous 1995 biographical film followed Sister Helen Prejean on her descent into the belly of the beastdeath row in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison in the early 1980sat the start of what would become much more than a one-woman inquiry into the ethics of capital punishment.

To its distinct credit, the film didn’t take any of the easy outs that too many self-identified works of social conscience often do. It didn’t flinch as it looked into the eyes of a racist and unrepentant murderer. Or the families of his victims, for that matter, or the various high- and low-placed agents of the state involved in administering the death penalty.

For all that, though, the Justice Theater Project production in February 2007 at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh also made quite clear the extent to which Robbins’ 2002 stage adaptation was problematic as a script. Yes, it was cinematicbut unfortunately, in the worst way possible: When re-written for stage, Robbins’ text proved to be a string of scenes that were far too theatrically frugal, and few of them afforded adequate time or dialogue to fully develop characters, moments or the world in which they took place. Nor did it help matters that in placing Prejean as our narrator, introducing scenes, providing context and sharing conclusions, the script was now noticeably more lecture-likeif not preachier, at pointsthan the original film.

Sometimes we forget one of the main reasons we go to theater. It’s the hope of seeing something new in something old. In this DDA Mainstage production, adjunct associate professor Julie Fishell has ably solved most of the difficulties that we’ve seen bedevil previous productions. This is an accomplishment significant enough in itself, but it doesn’t take into consideration the cast of undergraduate students populating the roles.

A crisp, sure sense of staging here ushers scenes on and off stage efficiently without ever feeling rushed. Though some of the cast seemed out of their depths at the start of last Sunday’s matinee, soon enough it was clear: They’d not only been taught to fully invest in situations and worlds, here they ultimately seemed to dive headfirst into the moments and characters we encounteredan absolute necessity, given the terseness of Robbins’ text.

Where other productions have had inappropriately little time or place onstage for Walter and Hope, the young couple murdered by Poncelet and his partner in crime, Fishell makes a place for them from the beginning through the end. In lower light, they sit and stand through the entire show toward the back of the stage, just off to the leftopposite from where Poncelet’s character sits, to the right, in his jail cell whenever he’s not at center stage. In the end, Fishell adds them to the witnesses at the execution.

Matthew Baldiga effectively captured the terror, the bravadoand the underlying emptiness and needinessof the murderer. By the end, Haley Swindal convinced me of the grief of a woman twice her age as Lucille, Poncelet’s mother, and Amy Stelling’s rictus of pain as Marybeth Percy made the execution scene more riveting. We saw solid supporting work from Jon Haas and Shane Zeigler as the fathers of the two killed children.

Alex Owen’s interpretation of defense lawyer Hilton Barber suggested a Cajun tent revivalist, mixed with an almost musical blue-eyed soul delivery; at points I didn’t know if he was about to speak or sing his next lines. These character choices were considerably more flamboyant and mannered than most made on stage; they drew attention to themselves and overpowered some of the other acting in ways that didn’t always serve the show. To be honest, though, they also made me very much want to see the next thing Owen does on stage. If Emily Anderson over-relied on one physical gestureseeming to hold a piece of chalk in one handher economy of expression was still appropriate for the central role of Sister Helen Prejean, standing her ground without once grandstanding.

Angels in America, Part I

Theatre in the Park
Through April 27

Now that the region has seen two productions of “Millennium Approaches,” the first half of Tony Kushner’s cycle, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, some comparisons are inevitable. If Duke’s Sheafer Theater set was more claustrophobic than Theatre in the Park’s larger (but, frequently, emptier) stage, it still effectively conveyed the degree to which Kushner’s work is, at its heart, an intimate epicone whose themes, no matter how overarching, are ultimately expressed either in individuals or various groupings of two characters on stage.

Still, if its current space resists the show, there’s good help to call on. I tend to find Eric Carl’s work as an actor a bit strident; here, it clearly fits the central role of Prior Walter, AIDS patient and reluctant revelator. Andrea Schulz Twiss gets at the vulnerabilities of Harper Pitt, the young Mormon wife who cannot trust her husband, her marriage or her senses, while Jesse Gephart’s gaunt Joseph is riddled with secrecy, religious guilt and longing. While we’re on guilt, Matthew-Jason Willis could convey more of it as Louis, Prior’s partner who abandons him as his illness worsens. Kenny Gannon’s sole misfortune as the sharky, closeted Republican kingmaker Roy Cohn was that Jeffrey West gave a drop-dead, best-of-career reading of it in Durham two Aprils ago.

With Adam Twiss’ clear-eyed direction and sure-footed staging, we find ourselves swept into the deluge; suspended, again, in individual moments from the time of the plague. Kushner zeroes in on the folly, the hubris, the uncertainty, the courage and the integrity with which people either faced the maelstrom or refused to do so.

Theatre in the Park performs “Part II: Perestroika” April 18-20, and both parts April 24-27.

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