DUBLIN, NC–When you get a first look at Bladen County, they don’t exactly seem to be hurting for space. Farmland stretches out on either side of Highway 87 once you finally get past Fayetteville, as the road ambles south by east toward the coast. The terrain’s flat; the cloudless sky is broad. Even by the most ambitious driving you’re still an hour away from shoreline, but the soil already reflects the change, as Piedmont red increasingly gives way to loamy shades of black, gray and white. The corn’s a little less than hip-high just now; the tobacco is still pretty low to the ground.

But when it comes to civic space–a neutral place where a people can come together to deliberate and lay hands on the issues of the day–Dublin, population 250, home of the Houston Peanuts outlet store, the S&J Grill, Bladen Community College and little else besides, is just as short on it as–well, as we too often are.

The modest community college campus is all but deserted Friday morning, May 21, as Raleigh’s Justice Theater Project sets up shop inside the auditorium, a ’70s-style brick, painted iron and cinder-block affair. Inspection has revealed three working electrical circuits and eight functional lighting instruments. Hundreds of folding chairs have been placed on the broad pine floor between the theater’s permanent seats and the stage–a floor on which a basketball court is marked out in fresh green and yellow paint.

It’s not the most minimal venue in which the Project has staged A Lesson Before Dying in recent months. That would have been the cafeteria in Jacoba Hall at Raleigh’s Franciscan School, where we caught the group the weekend before. Folding chairs were set up in a semicircle around the open entrance to an antechamber used as a chapel. Improvised floodlights shone down on three simple scenes before the entrance. A park bench stood off to the left, a table with two chairs far right. Between then, in front of three gray panels, a jumble of crates and boxes stood behind another wooden table and a couple of folding chairs, to represent an unused storeroom in a jail.

On that humble but sufficient set, under improvised tech in a similarly improvised venue, unfolded what was arguably the region’s strongest show of the season.

Regular readers will note this production achieves the first five-star rating since we instituted this system last September. It is our highest recommendation, and denotes uninterrupted excellence across a production, in script, direction, ensemble, individual acting and stagecraft. Such work provides a clear example to audiences and the community of practice–not only of what regional theater is capable of at its best, but why none of us should be ever fully satisfied with anything less: When theater works, it’s this good. When it is this good, what seems at times to be an insurmountable distance between lives and peoples can be reduced.

Which is why it’s particularly ironic that this production has had to seek shelter in the area’s churches and schools, in three one-and two-night stands at Cardinal Gibbons High School and The Franciscan School, before the invitation came last month to visit Dublin. Company management hopes to bring this production back to the region for its first conventional two-week run in June–but can’t confirm the dates or venue at this writing.

The electricity that crackled in the opening scene between Torrey B. Lawrence (as teacher Grant Wiggins), Jackie Marriott (Miss Emma, godmother of the condemned) and Michael Keough (as racist Sheriff Guidry) put all on notice of what was to come. As keenly developed and directed by Deb Royals, their sharply defined characters remained in conflict over the treatment of prisoner Jefferson (Kareem Nemley). Further fireworks came when Reverend Ambrose (memorably played by Antuan D. Hawkins) squared off against a humanist Wiggins over what a dying man should be taught. Rock-solid support from Barbette Hunter and Sean Brosnahan enhanced an existential world in which death may be as certain as injustice, but human worth and dignity can yet be salvaged.

Before the show in Dublin, another guest spoke with unique authority on life under such circumstances. After his retrial and release from Death Row in February, Alan Gell returned to Dublin to advocate for a moratorium on the death penalty. After the show, I asked him for his reaction to A Lesson Before Dying:

AG: I saw it for the very first time in Raleigh and I’ve got to admit it was disturbing. Basically what I’m watching is an innocent man being executed. Being sent to Death Row, I saw a number of people executed. Some I had befriended. To again see somebody executed just kind of reopened up a wound.

The Independent: You obviously have an insight into this world that I and my readers don’t have–

I would hate for you to ever have to see the things I’ve seen. I know we’ve had some really, really bad things happen. I know we have a system that’s willing to kill innocent people in order to keep the secret that they were innocent.

If there’s a moment in that play you could say, “There, they really got it right…”

The whole play, really. One of the worst parts of the play for me was where they find out that the guy is actually innocent. We saw the cop was sitting there. He’s heard that he was innocent. He hears every bit of it. He hangs his head–and he’s sad to hear it.

But he doesn’t run to the sheriff. He doesn’t run to the courthouse. And that’s exactly the way things worked for me.

Everybody heard it. Everybody knew it. But nobody did anything about it.

That’s got to be one of the most accurate parts of the play for me.

If I ask you what the show got right, I have to ask you what doesn’t show up on stage– maybe what can’t show up there.

The pain of the person that’s innocent sent to Death Row. The pain his loved ones and parents have to go through. When an innocent person is sent to Death Row, you’re creating two victims. The person that was killed and the person sent to death row to die.

I don’t think there’s any way to convey that pain I went through on Death Row. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings
The Man Who Tried To Save The World, Burning Coal Theater, Kennedy Theater, BTI Center, Thursday-Sunday, through June 13, $15-$12, 834-4001; Paper Hand Puppet Intervention, two shows Saturday, May 27: Duke Gardens Amphitheater at 11 a.m., and Chatham Mills, Pittsboro, at 8 p.m.

*** Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Raleigh Little Theatre–Since this was my first exposure to the songs of Jacques Brel–and I really didn’t care for most of them–I’m probably not the best person to ask about this 1967 musical. Like Smokey Joe’s Cafe (coming to RLT next month), Jacques Brel is a plotless two-act collection of songs illustrated by a singing quartet.

I can say that Heather Powell, Don Smith and Olive McKrell were in fine voice, with somewhat weaker vocal work and acting from Alan Seales. And Julie Florin’s orchestra was exuberant during Brel’s raucous celebrations and satires–but tentative at times interpreting his darker themes.

I did appreciate the artistic schisms in “The Desperate Ones,” “Timid Frieda” and “Old Folks.” But where such world-weary songs hit a contemporary emotional–and political–nerve, similar ones struck me as merely maudlin.

Between these, Jacques Brel ascended the absurdist’s merry-go-round in delightful send-ups like “Madeleine” and “The Middle Class.” Still, at the end I wondered of these songs’ impact in the original French.

Though some critics will say shows like this should make the case for a songwriter, musical tastes remain an individual affair. A previously cultivated love for Jacques Brel’s songs probably is required to get the most out of this work, but as things stand, I saw enough glimmers in Jacques Brel to make me wish I’d had one. (Thursday-Sunday, through May 30. $15-$11. 821-3111.)