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Review: 'Dead Man Walking'

City Lights Theater Company and Notre Dame High School collaborate on Tim Robbins' powerful play about the death penalty

IT HELPS to know going in to see Dead Man Walking at City Lights Theatre Company that the play has a very specific point of view to get across. Written by Tim Robbins as “a study into the national discourse on the death penalty” in the United States (and why it should be abolished), the script is often heavy-handed. More than a drama, the play has been positioned as a learning opportunity for students as part of the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project. Much of City Lights’ production, done in collaboration with Notre Dame High School, is very good and just as powerful as the book and film that preceded it. Robbins’ script charges hotly at the audience from a clear moral standpoint, leaving very little room for differing opinions.

The play tells the story of Sister Helen Prejean (Lisa Mallette), a nun who acts as spiritual adviser to Matthew Poncelet, a condemned man on death row at Angola State Prison in Louisiana. She warily embarks on a mission to save his soul before his time runs out. Thomas Gorrebeeck plays a compelling and rugged Poncelet, though his naturally baby-faced good looks sometimes work against him. As Sister Prejean, Mallette exudes a matronly warmth. The minor players are really what anchor the show. Karen DeHart, as Lucille Poncelet, Matthew’s mother, uses a less-is-more approach that pays off big time, resulting in an understated and convincingly heartbreaking performance. Lonnique Genelle, as Helen’s tutoring student Ginnie, also shines, playing an underprivileged urban youth without going overboard or indulging in stereotypes.

The production incorporates projectors and video screens, not always to good effect. At the back of the set (suggesting the prison with nothing more than some bars), very literal translations of themes in the script are shown: crosses, crying people and low-quality stock photos materialize at busy moments onstage. They distract from parts of the story that might otherwise have a greater impact. Just when Dead Man Walking starts to gather steam, it dissipates its own narrative force. The palpable tension and panic that build up as Ponceletís execution grows near unravel at the end, when the entire cast recites the Lordís Prayer in unison, and Prejean, who has been interjecting her own thoughts in first-person throughout the show, delivers a direct monologue to the audience, covering all the important points we were supposed to have absorbed, just in case we missed them.

DEAD MAN WALKING, a City Lights Theater Company production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm (Jan. 31 and Feb. 7) or 2pm (Feb. 14 and 21) at City Lights, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $25–$40. (408.295.4200)

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN will speak at a Death Penalty Awareness Benefit on Friday (Jan. 29) at 4:30pm at Notre Dame High School, 596 S. Second St., San Jose. The event includes a dinner and performance. Tickets are $100 and up. Call 408.295.4200 for details.