The title of "A Lesson Before Dying", Romulus Linney's adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines' prize-winning novel, candidly discloses what we are to expect from the story. Before the final curtain, someone is going to die and at least some one is going to learn something. This straightforwardness is appropriate, because the play deals with inevitability, not surprise. A young man is to be executed for a murder he probably didn't commit. The setting is 1948 Louisiana, so the question is not whether or not young Jefferson will be executed but how he will face his fate.
He was found guilty by an all-white jurynot unusual in that time and place. He was represented by counselthis is, after all, a country with a Bill of Rights for its citizens. And it sounds as if his court-appointed lawyer did his best to defend his client. But no matter how well-intentioned his tactics, an ill-advised choice of language leaves its imprint on the boy. In a last desperate plea to the jury, the lawyer says that killing this boy would be "like killing a hog," implying that his mental capacity and understanding was little greater than that of an animal. Jefferson's mental capacity proves great enough, however, to understand the hopelessness of his situation and to treat it with the impotent defiance of behaving like the animal he's been called. He will eat like a hog, he will crawl like a hog, he will die like a hog.
Enter the Lesson. Jefferson was raised by his godmother, Emma Glenn (Jefferson is the only character without a last name), who is determined that he die not like a hog, but like a man. She persuades a reluctant schoolteacher, Grant Wiggins, to face down his own cynicism and negativity about teaching the dead-end kids of this small-town South and to try to get through to Jefferson before he dies. Not surprisingly, the teacher (and others) learn as much as the condemned.
The death penalty couldn't be a more timely topic, of course. One current candidate for U.S. President is the governor of a state that is setting records in executionary efficiency. The governor of another death-penalty state (Illinois) recently placed a moratorium on executions as evidence piles up that variations of Jefferson's story are still occurring in the death rows of this country, half a century later. A disproportionate number of men and women on death row are black, an inordinate number are brain-damaged or of low IQ. Many have been coerced into confession of a crime they haven't committed; some confess to please their superiors. Jefferson may not be mentally deficient, but he is perceived to be so, and often behaves so, because of his lack of education, his innocence and fear.
We can assume where the writers of the play and novel probably stand on the death penalty, but "A Lesson Before Dying" is not a political polemic. The story may have become more didactic and schematic in its translation from novel to the stage, but it is, after all, called "A Lesson." But whatever critical misgivings one may have in the neat carpentry of the play, they fade in the face of its deeply moving effect. We care about the boy, we care about the other characters, and we hope that the inevitability of this boy's lot in 1948 will not be so in the new millennium.
The play, originally commissioned and presented by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where director Kent Thompson is Artistic Director. Here it opens the new season for the Signature Theatre Company, which up until now has featured one respected playwright per season. This season and next, the Signature is departing from custom, premiering new works by the playwrights previously represented. They are not departing from their custom, however, in fine production values. All the technical elements are up to their high standards: sets by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, lights by Jane Cox, costumes by Alvin B. Perry and the original music composed by Chic Street Man. The cast is almost all first-rate. Isiah Whitlock, Jr. is strong and convincing as the teacher, and Jamahl Marsh makes an impressive debut as Jefferson. The other characters are not written with the complexity of the leads, but they are each given enough and are in most cases played with honesty and earnestness to save them from the stock roles they could have become: Beatrice Winde as Emma Glenn, John Henry Redwood with the splendid resonant voice that is perfect for the Southern preacher he portrays, and Stephen Bradbury and Aaron Harpold as the white jailkeeper and his assistant. The only disappointment was Tracey A. Leigh as the schoolteacher's girlfriend, Vivian. The role seems designed as the cynical character's conscience, as often happens to the female consort character in contemporary male-written plays, and Ms. Leigh, though playing with enthusiasm and spirit, doesn't go beyond the obvious to bring the character to life.
With this one misgiving, and the suspicion that the novel is probably a deeper, less obvious creation, "A Lesson Before Dying" is a stirring evening in the theatre, a play that could serve as a fine lesson to young people who might otherwise become latter-day Jeffersons. And if not that, maybe it will encourage them to pick up Mr. Gaines' book.
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