Max Lanman ’10 is wearing a cut-off tank top, laceless boots and ragged jeans. On one bicep, he sports a swastika tattoo, and on the other, his castmate Streeter Phillips ’10, sharpies on a slinky, pin-up-style woman.
Lanman, a first-time actor, is playing Matt Poncelet, a convicted murderer and rapist around whose case and execution “Dead Man Walking” centers. Nearby, students playing a nun and a prison guard exchange lines while others construct the metal bars of a prison cell on stage in preparation for the start of the play.
This production of Tim Robbins’ screenplay-turned-script, was conceived as a multifaceted project: The cast and crew made a commitment not only to participate in rehearsal, but to also take part in discussions and attend lectures given by visiting experts on the death penalty. The production, directed by Avital Rutenberg-Schoenberg ’09, is the culmination of weeks of research and dialogue. Most of the cast members came into the process already decidedly opposing the death penalty, but as cast member Emily Jack-Scott ’08 said, participation in the play deepened their convictions.
The play covers the trial and, ultimately, the execution of Matthew Poncelet, focusing on the relationship the convicted man forms with Helen Prejean (Lauren Hunter ’10), a nun who reluctantly becomes his spiritual counselor. Scenes involving the ensemble cast alternate with the intimate dialogues between Prejean and Poncelet.
Hunter, who said the play was the perfect fusion of theater and politics, played Prejean as tentative yet strong. Lanman gives a firm and introspective performance as Poncelet, though he lacks the edge that would convince the audience he is guilty of the terrible crime for which he has been accused — as, unlike protagonists of many other death-row dramas, he actually is.
Their scenes together unfold with convincing silences and hesitations, even if their gentleness was sometimes cloying. Still, in one moment that stood out, Poncelet quietly complained of the cold, and Prejean, breaking out of her soft-spoken voice to cry angrily for a shirt for the prisoner, brought an unexpected fierceness to the scene. A courtroom episode featuring Rebecca Taber ’08 and Ned Fulmer ’09 gives realistic portrayals of lawyers on both sides of the issue, and an affecting interview with Poncelet’s mother (Bente Grinde ’09) also make an impression.
The action takes place on a simple, spare set designed by Andrew Lee ’09: black chairs, white tables, the metal bars of a prison cell and, for the scene in which the lethal injection is administered, a gurney and a sinister-looking machine. The imagery is sometimes powerful — Poncelet sitting inside the cage of his cell as the bars strike shadows on his face, dark-clad prison guards moving out of darkness — and the set and the costumes have a subdued palette of light and dark.
“Dead Man Walking” does not lack in simple beauty or tenderness, and its director and cast are not without a great deal of ambition. “Life and death,” says Rutenberg-Schoenberg, “make for a good play.” But the play’s examination of these two types of killing — the murder and subsequent execution — left out some of the rage, fervor and violence so deeply rooted in the death penalty debate.
In one scene, Prejean sits on a stool outside Poncelet’s cell as he confesses to his murder of a young boy. Confronted with the enormity of what he has done, she begins to say, “you did a terrible thing, but …” and then exalts him as a reformed criminal, a good man, an angel. The “but” comes too soon, and though both the pro and con of the death penalty are dutifully explored in this production, the treatment of the criminal as martyr made it too easy to write off the impact of the crime.
The play, aptly called “politically active theater” by cast member Claire Gordon ’10, may not be potent enough to galvanize its audience, to make them feel a sharp sense of grief or injustice. But the production still brings somber dignity and feeling to the death penalty issue, and what it may lack in intensity, it makes up for in its artistic worth and sense of purpose.