Yes, the ending was powerful. More than one audience member was seen to brush away a certain dampness about the eyes; if the truth be told, I did the same. We had come to learn a lesson as well, ostensibly about how both racism and capital punishment dehumanize the cultures they inhabit, and how precious–and difficult–is the fight for dignity.
But there’s a persistent, nagging sense that something’s missing–something important–in Romulus Linney’s adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines’ mid-’90s novel, and in the Deep Dish Theater Company production at University Mall. As a result, instead of painting a portrait of injustice, A Lesson Before Dying provides at points little more than a sketch. Perhaps it’s what’s kept off stage–both by Linney and director Paul Frellick–that compromises the work we see.
Instinctively, artists and audiences alike realize that, from a representational standpoint, historical racism in the South is a bottomless pit. It doesn’t matter how “graphic” you’re prepared to be: The physical, historical truth was exponentially worse. Is there a director prepared to faithfully stage–perhaps as a tableau mourant–one of the combination lynching/social gatherings whose photographs are immortalized in James Allen and John Littlefield’s book, Without Sanctuary? If so, is there an audience that would be willing to follow–and why? What does graphic representation do besides sensationalize and exploit the suffering of others? Such a matrix of questions deservedly accompanies the depictions of suffering.
Not that playwright Linney (or director Frellick) can exactly be accused of pushing the edge of the envelope in this stage adaptation. In this vision of Bayonne, La., in 1948, the race-baiting remains, on the whole, far too thickly veiled. Things, on the whole, stay civil, to a fault. The characters hold too much in check–to the point we’re made to wonder if they’re actually holding much of anything at all.
Torrey B. Lawrence proves an exception to the rule as Jefferson, a black man condemned to die for a murder he did not commit. When his defense attorney calls him a “hog” in a futile attempt to avoid the electric chair, Jefferson takes that animal as his identity, and in doing, demonstrates how his humanity has been stripped away. Lawrence hits a number of darker notes in his convincing characterization.
But we’re far more prepared to believe that Jason Weeks is a small-town, tin-horn politico of a sheriff than we ever are convinced he’s a racist–a truly “bad” cop, conveniently juxtaposed by Ben Tedder’s able Deputy Bonin.
As Grant Wiggins, a college-educated grade-school teacher forced to deal with the crushing forces in the South in the 1940s, Lennardo DeLaine had the most difficult tightrope of all to walk. Over-stoicism was a mere survival tool in the Old South; more theatrically gratifying forms of expression were a good way to draw unwelcome attention.
But part of theater’s work involves showing both the mask and the things that mask conceals. DeLaine’s mask still hides too much. A glimmer of the contempt he feels for the Reverend Ambrose (Solomon Gibson III), his own students, and himself, gets through at points, but far more is left unseen. We come closest to seeing interior surfaces in his conversations with Sherida McMullan, who brings ethical substance to the role of Vivian Baptiste, his girlfriend.
Rob Hamilton’s professional set design gets maximum mileage out of the narrow Deep Dish space, and Steve Dubay’s muted lights convey the appropriate emotional notes. But for a play that takes place in the shadow of the gallows, much–if not most–of the social mechanisms that bring us there remain unstated, off stage. The cheaply melodramatized unveiling of the electric chair doesn’t do nearly enough to bring the horrors of that world into view. Perhaps that’s the lesson that remains unlearned at the end of A Lesson Before Dying.