Witness to an Execution
PlayMakers Rep
Closed April 27

In a post-performance discussion of his solo show, Witness to an Execution, Triangle actor and playwright Mike Wiley told the audience, “Execution is inhumane to the executioner.” Throughout his impressive production, under the direction of Kathryn Hunter-Williams, Wiley exposed this inhumanity by leading his audience through the day of an execution at Texas’ notorious Huntsville prison. Along the way, he assumes the guises of such participants as the warden and his wife, the district attorney, a chaplain, a juror and a reporter.

Wiley borrowed much of his dialogue from the play’s inspiration, the 2000 All Things Considered radio broadcast of the same name. By opening up the original broadcast to take advantage of theatrical possibilities, Wiley is able to raise more questions about the effects of capital punishment. The majority of his characters are new additions, including the death row chef and a waitress, a woman called “Death Row Angel” who befriends death row inmates, two grown children of a former Sing Sing executioner, the victim’s father and the inmate’s mother.

A screen behind Wiley projects each character’s title as he runs through introductions, establishing the character’s unique voice and mannerism. Each character’s line of introduction is later repeated and given greater context in a longer scenea technique that engages the audience as the lines they recognize are repeated. This works to particular effect when the staid warden reveals his emotional breakdown, hidden in the shed at his home.

Solo shows present challenges when the performer wants to dramatize conversations, and Wiley’s preferred solution is to present only one side of the exchanges. This approach strengthens the focus on the execution witnesses (at the expense of the condemned prisoner), but becomes tedious as Wiley gets bogged down in reacting to, then explicating, the unheard half of the dialogue. Wiley also might have considered employing more documentary elements: One of his show’s most powerful moments occurs when we hear a chilling audio recording of a soon-to-die inmate’s last words, an effect that stokes horror and empathy beyond the capacity of dramatic reenactment.

Credit is due to set designer Charles McClennahan for the spare set, consisting of a gurney and backdrop screens. The gurney is divided into two parts that are used separately throughout the play and finally connected at the end for the execution. In her director’s notes, Hunter-Williams says the division of the gurney “reflects the nature of the execution procedure. It, too, is parceled out, so that no single person feels solely responsible for the act.”