Dead Man Walking

Death penalty debate staggers to the theater.

We are one of the last Western nations to retain the death penalty, but you don't hear much about it these days. Where executions were once front-page news, they're now relegated to single paragraphs far back in the paper -- if they're mentioned at all. Most of us go about our lives blithely unaware of the suffering of condemned people -- their isolation, the desperate attempts to hold on to sanity as the mind swings between terror and hope -- and the ugly machinery of death maintained by state penitentiaries. In an attempt to bring light to the subject, Sister Helen Prejean published Dead Man Walking, an account of her work with death-row inmates; the book became a film in 1996, directed by Tim Robbins and starring Sean Pean and Susan Sarandon. Now a script by Robbins is being staged by universities and colleges across the country, intended as a spur to discussion.

Dead Man Walkingat the Denver Victorian isn't exactly theater. It's agitprop, though agitprop in the most honorable tradition. It shows Sister Prejean, played by Terry Ann Watts, being drawn inexorably into contact with Matt Poncelet, who killed a teenage boy and raped the boy's companion, then stood by while his partner murdered her. The script doesn't take the easy way out by giving us a convict who's pitiable and sympathetic. Poncelet is racist to the core. He's reflexively polite to Sister Prejean, but unable to be alone with her without making sexual suggestions.

Scene by scene, we're led through the issues surrounding capital punishment: The loneliness of death-row inmates and the inhuman bureaucratic process that has a living man weighed and measured for his coffin are weighed against the agony of the victims' families and their demands for revenge. We're also privy to Sister Prejean's spiritual uncertainty in the face of all this, and her determination to bring something human --empathy, conversation, a piece of music -- into the gray, equivocal world of death row.

Watts gives a beautiful and generous-souled performance as Sister Prejean, making her exactly the sort of wise, calm woman you would want beside you in a crisis. She's quietly dignified almost throughout, but you can see the feelings of mingled rage and pity in her eyes when she's confronted with men who claim to be only doing their jobs: the rigid, callous prison chaplain; the officer in charge of strapping down one of Poncelet's legs (each of his limbs is assigned to a different guard so that no one person will be guilty of his death); the governor who uses the convict's last chance for clemency as a political photo op. Watts makes the moment when Prejean finally breaks down almost unendurably poignant, and it's impossible to convey in words the effect of her choked, wavering voice as she sings a hymn to Poncelet immediately before the execution.

Although he seems too young and insufficiently rough-edged for the role, Steve Pardun holds up his end as Poncelet. But for the most part, the rest of the cast seems to comprise non-actors who lack the intensity and energy that professionals bring to the stage. Sometimes -- particularly in a production like this one, where events are so clearly drawn from real life -- the presence of a few non-actors can convey a poignant sense of reality, but you need enough serious talent to hold the proceedings aloft. Instead, Watts has to keep the heart of this play beating almost single-handedly.

Dear God, this play is long. I can understand why the period preceding the execution is made to seem interminable. It's a salutary reminder of how excruciating these hours are for the condemned man, the way each second -- emptied of the meaning that accrues only when we know that a single second will inexorably be followed by another, and then another -- simultaneously stretches into eternity and races faster than the mind can comprehend. But there are lots of bits and pieces that could be cut, and director Angela Astle needs to pay more attention to pacing. After a heartbreaking scene in which the mother of the murdered girl describes the last words she and her daughter exchanged, we don't need to hear bereaved parents attending a support group describe their sorrows, one after another. The execution scene, though upsetting, becomes banal because it's extended too long, and it almost descends into bathos when, in a device that could only work on film or in a theater with very strong technical resources, the murdered teenagers speak to the dying Poncelet.

Still, on the night I attended, I couldn't help noticing that many people in the audience were moved to tears. If staging Dead Man Walking helps bring the horrors of the death penalty to public attention, the Victorian deserves our deepest thanks.

 
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