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A Lesson Before Dying
a Drama
by Romulus Linney

COMPANY : Dominion Entertainment Group, LLC [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Porter Sanford Performing Arts and Community Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 5120

SHOWING : August 23, 2017 - September 03, 2017



"A Lesson Before Dying" tells the story of Jefferson, an innocent young man, who is condemned to death in backwoods Louisiana in 1948. At the trial his lawyer, trying to save his life, calling him no more a human being than a hog. 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 novel makes an engrossing, moving and finally devastating play for the stage.

Sheriff Sam Guidry Lee Buechele
Paul Bonin Trevor Goble
Grant Wiggins Enoch King
Reverend Moses Ambrose Kerwin Thompson
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Less ’n’ Then More
by playgoer
Saturday, August 26, 2017
Romulus Linney’s "A Lesson Before Dying" starts out slow. We’re introduced to the godmother (Elisabeth Omilami) and former teacher (E.A. King) of a young black man (Simeon Daise) sentenced to death for the killing of a white bar owner. We also meet the white sheriff (Lee Buechele) and prison guard (Trevor Goble) who allow them to meet in a storeroom. The godmother wants the young man to learn to die with dignity, and hopes the teacher will help him to do so. The first scenes make it clear that the young man does not wish to cooperate. He was called a "hog" during the trial and has taken it to heart. We’re shown his hog-like recalcitrance repeatedly.

Things begin to click only when the teacher gets the young man to discuss what happened during the crime that got him sentenced to the electric chair. He’s innocent, but this isn’t a crime procedural where the case is reopened and the young man is exonerated through courtroom and forensic heroics. This is Louisiana in the late 1940’s, and a white jury has convicted a black man. Innocent or not, he will be executed.

The education of Jefferson, the young man, is complicated by the interference of Reverend Ambrose (Kerwin Thompson), who believes that only God should be on the mind of the convicted, and encouraged by the interference of Vivian Baptiste (Brittany L. Smith), the girlfriend of the teacher, who convinces the teacher to continue his efforts in the face of difficulties. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Jefferson will eventually head to his death with dignity, but that’s not the only point of the story. Grant Wiggins, the teacher, finds the cynical, anti-religious, disaffected views he has of his community altered through the community’s support for Jefferson. Both Jefferson and Grant are affected by their joint journey. So is Paul Bonin, the white guard who believes in Jefferson’s innocence. It all leads to a sobering, but uplifting ending.

Kat Conley’s set is backed by angled brick walls that primarily suggest the storeroom in which most of the action takes place. Two doors, center right and center left, lead from the storeroom. The storeroom floor is on a raised platform; a lower platform and the stage floor contain furniture to suggest other locations, principally a schoolroom and a restaurant for some of Grant’s scenes. Mary Parker’s lighting design ably suggests all these locations, and uses a nice dappled effect across the stage before the show begins. Her lighting and Michael Salvatorio’s sound design work in tandem for an effective electric chair scene. Nyrobi Moss’ costume design and Cynthia McCoy’s props and set dressing suggest the time period, helping to give the show an authentic feel.

David Koté has directed the show with nicely restrained movements to suggest the limitations of space imposed on Jefferson and his visitors. Mostly, though, he has shaped the show to let its emotional impact come through. The final moments, with Messrs. Daise, Goble, and King, drive the point home that all these men have changed for the better during the course of Jefferson’s imprisonment and execution. The other characters aren’t given as much of an emotional arc, but Ms. Smith impresses with her portrayal of Vivian, bringing a touch of sweetness into the bitter circumstances of Jefferson’s life in prison. All the acting is fine, gaining power as the play proceeds.

The venue, the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center, provides fine theater facilities, but Dominion Entertainment Group could improve its ticketing operations. The box office line stretched in an undulating curve across the immense lobby before the show started, getting longer and longer as showtime approached, resulting in the show starting significantly later than the stated time of 8 PM. That can make for a discouraging start to what ultimately becomes a satisfying evening of theatre. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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