As a stage play, Dead Man Walking fits the mold of neither the heralded film nor the memoir-like book by Sister Helen Prejean. The book speaks, in graphic detail, of the life and death of Matt Poncelet (not his real name), convicted murderer and rapist. The movie speaks more to the relationship between these two people and the efforts made to keep this man from being “murdered” by the state. The current Justice Theater Project production of the play, which was written by Tim Robbins based on Sister Helen’s “novel,” tries instead to strike a balance between the two. It examines Poncelet’s life, as seen through the eyes of Sister Helen, after his conviction. There is a combination of three areas in the play: politics, religion, and justice. Although there is no doubt whatsoever about Poncelet’s guilt, there is a clear demarcation between what he has done and how he is to be punished. His deed was gruesome, cruel, and heinous. His death is clean, antiseptic, cold, and done “by the will of the people.”
The play is still narrated by Sister Helen, played here by Carole Marcotte. Sister Helen does her best to tell her story in as separated and dispassionate means as she can. But she cannot entirely succeed. Despite herself, despite the fact that she cannot truly explain how things went as far as they did, she continues. She realizes that this experience is colored by her own beliefs; and that it has colored her beliefs, as well. It is clear that she is tested by this experience. But although she tells her story, and gives us her own clear conviction against the death penalty, there are others who speak just as loudly for it, especially in this case. Poncelet (Sean Brosnahan), who with a cohort killed a teen and raped and killed his girlfriend, is a hated, despised man. In New Orleans in the 1982, people not only cannot believe that a nun is aiding this monster; they openly abuse her for it in public.
Marcotte and Brosnahan recreate these two individuals with a stirring realism that paints the picture of steel doors and concrete walls. There is no realistic set; only blocks create levels. We come to see what is inside the Louisiana State Prison through the interaction of the cast, most especially these two. Marcotte lets us feel within her character the two dueling feelings of revulsion at some of Poncelet’s actions and beliefs, and the conviction that, despite himself, the man is worth saving. Brosnahan brings out the innate hatreds and bigotries Poncelet has grown into, while at the same time revealing the fear he faces for his deeds. These are two strong and powerful performances, and they bring along with them a team of nineteen other actors who recreate ever-changing characters dealing, in their own individual ways, with crisis and loss.
This play is a combination of theatrical aspects. While the action of the play, Helen’s experience, takes place center stage, life goes on around and behind the participants. Lives are led, children grow, speeches are made, conflicts arise and dispel, but all in tableau. It is as if the continuation of life “outside” becomes distant, and silent, in the face of what happens “inside.” The creation of these constantly changing scenes requires a total of 21 actors and 34 characters. There is a wide diversity of people cast in the play, from students as low as the fifth grade to professional actors now in retirement. The scenes are well-created and speak loudly of the expanse of life in the “Big Easy.” They speak as well of the pressures, legal, political, and religious, that are brought to bear on Sister Helen as she goes about the “duty” she has taken on, in becoming the spiritual advisor of this death-row inmate.
The interesting result of this smooth and well-presented play is perhaps surprising. We hear of the continued efforts of Sister Helen and the attorney she has found to represent her charge, Hilton Barber (Nick Karner); but we also hear from the governor of Louisiana, as he refuses to commute, and the words of the prison’s own chaplain, Father Farley (both played by Larry Evans). Farley is committed to the execution of those deemed horrid enough. And for every verse that Sister Helen can quote against such actions, Farley has one in support. He tells her he is not convinced she can do anything to help Poncelet and, without putting it in so many words, feels she is a fool for trying. So that which is thought to be, as is Sister Helen, against the death penalty may or may not carry the day. By the end of the play, the State is proven right, Helen completes her charge, there is closure for the families, and Justice, it seems, has been done. No one’s mind has been changed. Those who were against the death penalty before the death are, still; those who were for it, remain. Nevertheless, Helen is deeply affected. As Barber tells her, the idea is to humanize Poncelet, a self-proclaimed Aryan and terrorist; for her, Poncelet is entirely human. Her convictions have been strengthened. And it is clearer than ever to her that the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment, even for the most hated of criminals.
Artistic director Deb Royals, who directs this show, and the Justice Theater Project have focused on the death penalty as their cause célèbre in the past couple of years. She adds her own comments opposing the death penalty in the program. Further, the JTP hosts discussions after the upcoming performances Feb. 8th and 9th to create a dialog about the death penalty and raise consciousness about the topic. Audiences are encouraged to bring their own comments, and all viewpoints are invited.
Note: There will be post-show discussions with the audience after the Feb. 8th and 9th performances. On Feb. 8th, Father David McBriar of the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi will be the discussion facilitator; and Mark De La Rosa of the Cardinal Gibbons’ Theology Department will facilitate the Feb. 9th discussion.
The Justice Theater Project presents Dead Man Walking Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 8-10, at 7 p.m. at Cardinal Gibbons High School Performing Arts Center, 1401 Edwards Mill Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. Note: Admission is by donation, but reservations are recommended. 919/215-0889 The Justice Theater Project: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/. Cardinal Gibbons High School: http://www.cghsnc.org/. The Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project: http://www.deadmanwalkingplay.com/. Sister Helen Prejean: http://www.prejean.org/ [inactive 6/08]. The Book: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780679751311 [inactive 12/08]. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112818/.