Friday, April 29, 2022

Cloverdale Playhouse: "A Lesson Before Dying"

After a well-earned standing ovation at the sold-out opening night performance of A Lesson Before Dying at the Cloverdale Playhouse, many members of the audience sat down again in respectful silence to reflect on the blisteringly powerful production they had just witnessed.

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival commissioned playwright Romulus Linney to adapt Ernest J. Gaines' award winning novel in 2000, and the play has gone on to numerous productions, winning several more awards along the way. -- It recounts the story of a quasi-literate Black man sentenced to death in rural Louisiana in1948 for a crime he did not commit, and his Godmother's attempt to get him to face the electric chair with dignity.

Played on J. Scott Grinstead's exquisitely designed set [another triumph], with period character driven costumes by Cameron Wasner, BTW Magnet high school student Noah Henninger's evocative period appropriate sound design, and inspired lighting by BTW students Eboni McCoy and Princess McDaniel and their instructor Rita Tidwell, the collaborative effort seamlessly integrates with the script.

Director Georgette Norman guides her uniformly eloquent ensemble of seven actors through the complexities of plot and character with such naturalistic force that we never doubt that these could be real people. Tension builds through the play's two acts as they transmit their beliefs and doubts, their frustrations and faith, their acceptance and rejection of racial stereotypes, their trust and questioning of an inequitable legal system in the Jim Crow South; and Ms. Norman's directorial wizardry fixes our attention, requires our emotional participation, and challenges all of us in the audience to admit that the same demons impacting the characters on stage still resonate with us today.

Yes, there are lessons to be learned, though there are no easy answers. There's a lot still to do.

Jefferson [Chason Marvin is mesmerizing in his transformation] appears in chains for almost the entire play; he is shackled during his term in jail, and shackled by society's and the law's insistence that he is less than fact, his own defense lawyer had referred to him in court as a "hog", an appellation that Jefferson recognizes as an insult but insists if "that's what they say I am, that's what I'll be". -- His elderly Godmother Emma Glenn [a sympathetically steadfast Chrystal Bates] trusts that his former teacher Grant Wiggins [Gregory L. Blanche's inner conflict is palpable] is the only person who can get through to him: "You're a teacher...teach him to die like a man", she insists. But Grant, who questions his abilities as a teacher, has doubts that he can be effective. And when Reverend Moses Ambrose [an unswerving Joseph Trimble] challenges them all to try to guide Jefferson to save his soul by trusting God, both Jefferson and Grant are made to face their own atheism.

When Grant admits to his girlfriend Vivian Baptiste [Tunisia Thomas in a distinctively subtle characterization] that he does not want to go back to help Jefferson, and that he wants to get far away from the town, she tells him that he needs to "stand up like a man too", to help a man he knows is innocent. Risking their relationship, she even calls Grant a coward, and decides that she must do something herself to help Jefferson.

While Sheriff Sam Guidry [a matter-of-fact Chris Roquemore] insists on the letter of the law in the treatment of his prisoner, jailer Paul Bonin [a sensitive John McWilliams in a pivotal role] becomes more sympathetic as he witnesses the various interviews and visits from the others. And even the Sheriff relaxes the rules a bit.

As the action draws to its inevitable conclusion, signaled by the date and time of the execution getting nearer and nearer, there are several breakthrough moments for each of the characters. Central to this is the introduction of a notebook in which Jefferson is encouraged by Grant to "write what you feel deep inside you", to which Jefferson responds: "You make me think I'm somebody", and his transformation is complete. -- Though we do not witness the actual execution, the gut-wrenching denouement hinges on what it means to be heroic, where teachers are taught by their students what it means to be a dignified man.

This provocative production of A Lesson Before Dying demonstrates the very highest achievements in River Region theatre.