Dead on Arrival

Capital punishment is on everybody's mind these days, what with Timothy McVeigh's conviction and JonBenet's murderer still on the loose. So the regional premiere of Colorado playwright David Hall's The Quality of Mercy is timely enough. And CityStage Ensemble's biting production has much to offer--several fine performances, inventive direction by Dan Hiester and a stunning set. But the play needs work--a lot of it.

The hallucinogenic storyline concerns a convicted murderer on death row, madman Max, who is quite certain he did not kill that lovely young woman. His companions in the death house--Hargrove, who slew his wife and his brother with an ax when he caught them in the sack, and Henry, a pathetic thief who murdered a clerk during a robbery--alternately comfort and taunt him.

Every time these three interact, playwright Hall's words spark up with life. The death-row scenes are convincing, scary and tough. They never remind you of movie stereotypes, because although the sardonic wit, noisy desperation and moral idiocy of these losers is familiar, their language is original enough to ring true.

But when the parents of Maggie, the girl Max was convicted of murdering, show up at the prison to ask about their daughter's last moments on earth, the play suddenly slides onto thin ice. Max conjures up the dead girl and, reliving the time she spent with him, recounts enough of his personal history to account for his frightful psyche. His mother died when he was young, his father deserted him, and his aunt raised him savagely enough to instill in him a searing hatred of women. And as it turns out, Max has killed before, though the authorities never found out about the others.

As Max relives his encounter with Maggie, we learn that she showed up at his door selling encyclopedias--an eighteen-year-old so dim or so desperate that she refused to leave his apartment even though he repeatedly ordered her to go. These scenes are the most problematic in the play. Maggie is so annoyingly assertive, you have to wonder if she is trying to get herself killed. Kelly Williams is given a thankless task in the role.

The scenes in which Maggie's parents interact with Max are also awkwardly written, redundant and long-winded. And it's not the actors' fault. Laura Cuetara is touching as the mother, trying to penetrate the killer's icy reserve to find out if her daughter hated or forgave her. (Maggie, it turns out, was an abused child, too.) Kurt Soderstrom has no choice but to bluster and fume as the poorly written patriarch.

Christopher Tabb is riveting as mad Max, using his hands, his head, his entire body to convey a weak soul tortured by his demented mind. Stephen Remund as the born-again Henry, terrified of imminent hellfire, gives a fiery, intelligent performance. And David Earl Jones as Hargrove is utterly at home in his cage. He's the only one of the three prisoners who seems able to cope with his guilt or his mortality, making do with cynical humor and the easy conviction that it will all end in oblivion. These three are wonderful together.

The play itself, though, is unsatisfying--not because it lacks conviction, but because it lacks a breadth of understanding. The title would seem to imply an argument against capital punishment, or at least an argument for forgiveness. But the problem is, whatever his intentions may have been, Hall's play isn't really about forgiveness at all. Maggie's parents talk about it because they hate Max and feel guilty for throwing Maggie out. But no viable argument is ever presented in favor of forgiveness. Instead, Hall implies that people who seek to forgive their enemies are probably just hypocrites trying to find absolution for themselves. It's a shallow point at best.--Mason

The Quality of Mercy, through July 20 at the Theatre at Jack's, 1553 Platte Street, No. 202, 433-8082.