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A Lesson Before Dying

a Drama
by adapted by Romulus Linney from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines

COMPANY : Onstage Atlanta, Inc. [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Onstage Atlanta, Inc. (Decatur) [WEBSITE]
ID# 2645

SHOWING : January 25, 2008 - February 16, 2008



An Oprah's Book Club selection for September 1997, "A Lesson Before Dying" follows Jefferson, an innocent man, who is condemned to death in backwoods Louisiana in 1948. At the trial his lawyer, trying to save his life, calls him a hog, less than human, and therefore not worth killing. In prison, he acts like one, insisting that he will be dragged like that hog to his death in the electric chair. His godmother asks a schoolteacher to teach him to die like a man. The teacher, Grant Wiggins, struggling to quit his poor parish school and leave the South, faces both Jefferson and himself as execution day arrives. Ernest J. Gaines' celebrated and award-winning novel makes an engrossing, moving and finally devastating play for the stage.

"Rousing theatre for sure." —NY Magazine.
"The story's wrenching power lies not in its outrage but in the almost inexplicable grace the characters must muster as their only resistance to being treated like lesser beings." —The New Yorker.
"Irresistible momentum and a cathartic explosion…a powerful inevitability." —NY Times.
"A lesson in the transformative power of theatre." —Time Out.
"LESSON is easily the most powerful play to come from Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Southern Writers' Project…It is a palpable treasure for its audience." —Montgomery Advertiser.

Director Barbara Cole Uterhardt
Lighting Designer Tom Gillespie
Set Designer Harley Gould
Assistant Stage Manager Angie Short
Stage Manager Jay Tryall
Costume Designer Jane C Uterhardt
Miss Emma Gina Guesby
Sheriff Guidry Michael Henry Harris
Deputy Paul Bonin James Lentini
Rev. Moses Ambrose Nat Martin
Grant Wiggins Nathaniel Ryan
Jefferson Antjuan Tobias Taylor
Vivian Baptiste Sherricka White
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by Mama Alma
Saturday, January 26, 2008
OnStage Atlanta continues its presentation of raw, powerfully provocative pieces with Romulus Linney's adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines' "A Lesson Before Dying." "Lesson" is the story of Jefferson, an innocent young man imprisoned and sentenced to die in 1948 Louisiana. In an effort to save his life, Jefferson's defense attorney compares his execution to the slaughter of a hog. Jefferson retreats into an animalistic fugue state, from which his family and friends try to rescue him.

Harley Gould's set shows the long hallway Jefferson must traverse to get to his visitation room, and the "room" itself is a platform placed at a sharp angle to the audience, creating visual dissonance. The walls of the room are delineated only by a window and door, but the platform is small and constrained, deftly suggesting the confinement of prison. To modern audiences, the prison setting will evoke echoes of "Dead Man Walking" or "The Green Mile," but Jefferson is no Sister Helen's lost sinner or Stephen King's fantastical healer. He is a flesh and blood man, beset on all sides by a justice system that has not so much failed him as refuse to acknowledge his humanity, an attorney who disappoints him most offensively, a mother figure who seeks to assuage agony with comfort food, and a teacher who offers what appears to be too little too late. Jefferson retreats into a shell of primordial fury. As the play progresses, he gradually reconnects spiritually with the world, eventually becomes a cause celebre for the town, and finally achieves nobility by offering his death as an heroic sacrifice.

Antjuan Tobias Taylor plays Jefferson as a nascent volcano of a man: he smolders, he burns, he belches fire and smoke. Despite being hampered by the physical constraints of the set and character, and Jefferson's psychological impediment, Taylor bursts forth with a torrent of words and energy, at times cursing and spitting, going to a deeply disturbing place most of us would not care to contemplate, let alone visit, casting off all those who seek to aid him. The words of the poem came to me "Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Of course, Thomas' poem was about old age, and Jefferson's situation is direly different.

Taylor is supported by a dynamite cast. Most effective is Gina Lynn Guesby, who captures brilliantly the subtle variations of tone and posture inherent in Miss Emma. She is all deference when the Sheriff is in the room, but steel wrapped in velvet with the teacher, Grant. Note, too, how she manages to get her way, even when dealing with the Sheriff, in a situation where she has no explicit power. The rocks are not visible in the deep waters in which Mss Emma treads, but she has learned to navigate around them with delicate grace. Guesby conveys all by the angle of her back and where she chooses to focus her gaze.

I also very much liked James Lentini's characterization of Deputy Paul, a prison guard who feels guilty about his place in Jefferson's situation. He is not responsible for it, but he is a participant in the system that caused it, and he is therefore "guilty by association." Lentini does an excellent job projecting discomfort and ambivalence. He is profoundly changed by the events he witnesses (in contrast to the Sheriff's single gruff acquiescence), and one senses, at the end, that Paul may be close to breaking with the inhumane system which has given him his living.

Sherricka White brought a welcome ethereal quality to the role of Vivian Baptiste, the idealist, becoming nearly angelic during her visit with Jefferson. Nat Martin, as Rev. Ambrose, the pragmatist, both looked the part and exuded the necessary gravitas, reminiscent of the precise eloquence of the late Roscoe Lee Browne. Michael Henry Harris, in the thankless job of Sheriff Guidry (a/k/a The Evil Establishment), neatly sidestepped the temptation to play a stereotype

I was most troubled by the character of Grant Wiggins. He seems very unsympathetic at first, and I caught myself wondering why couldn't he just leave Jefferson in peace. [I know, I know – no justice, no peace.] As I came to know Grant, however, I realized that he was keeping the world at bay with his cynicism and sarcasm just as surely as Jefferson was doing with his outbursts. Grant's rage has been distilled over a lifetime, bottled up and pushed down deep inside. He retreats into the superiority of his education, holding himself aloof and counting himself blameless in his neighbors' struggles. As Grant warms to the task of visiting Jefferson, however, he begins to open up to his world, becoming a better neighbor, a better boyfriend, a better teacher. Nathaniel Ryan's portrayal is an extremely subtle one, very interior, very intense, comparable to the (earlier) work of Daniel Day Lewis: his final, quiet scenes with his students and Deputy Paul are simply stunning.

In the final analysis, though, the play hinges on the transformative power of Taylor's courageous portrayal of Jefferson and his hero's journey. As the innocent called upon to perform an impossible task, Taylor sulks, screams, rants and unabashedly debases himself. He then seamlessly transitions to diligent student, and flawlessly finishes as the master, calmly conducting his final hours. Like the character he portrays, Taylor is the "bravest man in the room." [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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