Review: A Lesson Before Dying (Lincoln Square Theatre)

  
  

Stark simplicity amplifies Lincoln Squares’ Lesson

  
  

David Lawrence Hamilton and Barth Bennett (Jefferson) in Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

  
Lincoln Square Theatre presents
   
   
A Lesson Before Dying
   
Written by Romulus Linney
Directed by Kristina Schramm
at Lincoln Square Theatre, 4754 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

To call Lincoln Square Theatre’s A Lesson Before Dying rudimentary would be the understatement of the year. The production values of the set design by director Kristina Schramm may be low, its look stark and rough around the edges. That, however, works in the production’s favor at critical moments—evoking dark poetry about a young black man sentenced to die in the electric chair for a crime he did not commit. The meat and potatoes of Lincoln Square’s offering lies in the excellent characterizations of its little known cast, some of whom make their Chicago debut David Lawrence and Elana Elyce in Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying"with this production. Hence, their cumulative efforts can be considered a small diamond gleaming in an unexpected spot. Go to witness the resilient, earthy, intelligent and vital performances that fill the church basement space Lincoln Square Theatre calls home.

Set in the pre-Civil Rights Era South, Miss Emma (vividly played by Mary Helena) wants the local schoolteacher Grant Wiggins (David Lawrence Hamilton) to intervene with her grandson Jefferson (Barth Bennett), who has just been sentenced to death for the murder of a white grocery store owner. At one point in his trial, Jefferson’s lawyer had argued that one might as well execute a hog as execute his client—from that point Jefferson only thinks of himself as a hog. Miss Emma hopes that the schoolteacher can speak to Jefferson and raise him up to believe in himself again as a man, so that he can die with dignity.

But Wiggins himself is a man burnt out on the futility of teaching in the rural South. The shack that stands for the schoolhouse he teaches in doesn’t have enough chalk to last through the year. His students spend more time playing with bugs than reading the old, used and worn out textbooks donated to them from white schools. His perspective on the impact he can make under such conditions has degenerated to impotent and sour cynicism. “Vivian, I’m dead here,” he tells his girlfriend, also a schoolteacher. But Vivian Baptiste (in a fresh and driven performance by Elana Elyce) pushes Wiggins to help Jefferson. Due to going through a divorce herself, Vivian cannot be sure of Wiggins, if he turns out to be someone people can’t depend upon—“Decent men back out. Decent men give up. Decent men change the rules.”

     
A scene from Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney A scene from Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

The power of Wiggin’s story lies in the pressures upon him to be more than what he is – which he may be swayed by, but never really yields to. Romulus Linney’s adaptation of the novel by Earnest J. Gaines preserves Wiggins as a man filled with doubts, able to use only the most meager pedagogical tools at his disposal to draw Jefferson out. Vivian seems, at times, to want him to be a superman. The Rev. Ambrose (resonantly played by Rudolf D. Munro, III) definitely dislikes Wiggins’ secular leanings dominating Jefferson’s recovery and wishes there would be more God-talk involved in his redemption. But it’s the halting and uncertain nature of the schoolteacher’s mentality that allows him to be influenced by the person who matters most—the condemned man himself.

At the beginning, both Hamilton and Bennett’s play their characters too tight and shut down to allow for much emotional play. But both actors blossom into their roles organically—evincing profound, confrontational and revelatory moments the closer Jefferson comes to his day of execution. Flanked by the manipulative Sheriff Guidry (Ed Schultz) and the sympathetic Deputy Paul Bonin (Jereme Rhodes), Jefferson’s ability to recover himself and face his undeserved death becomes more about the transformation of a community than just his personal ordeal. Lincoln Square Theatre renders a poignant and profound drama on the value of human life that is more than worth the effort to seek it out.

     
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The cast of Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

Dates/Times: Continues thru June 11, with performances Fridays at 8pm and Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm.

Tickets: $20 ($12 students & seniors)
Purchase:
credit card via Brown Paper Tickets; cash and check at door;
Reservations:
773-275-7930; Location: 4754 N. Leavitt St. Chicago (map)

  
  

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REVIEW: Eclipse Theatre’s “Democracy”

Democracy Is a “Lite” and Casual Affair

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Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow.  –Abraham Lincoln, 1864

Eclipse Theatre presents:

Democracy

adapted by Romulus Linney
directed by Steven Fedoruk
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Lincoln saw it all coming, but could he have anticipated an America as rife with corruption as it was under his leading general? Henry Adams’ novel, Democracy, which forms one half of Romulus Linney’s adaptation, (the second being Adam’s novel, Esther, based on his wife) came from the disillusionment Adams experienced under Ulysses S. Grant’s administration. Idealistic and eager for reform, Adams pinned great hopes upon the rough, honest and honorable military man.

Democracy05 Disillusionment followed hard and fast upon Grant’s 1868 election—September 24, 1869 saw the dawn of Black Friday, a panic brought about by James Fisk and Jay Gould’s attempts to corner the gold market, as well as the severe misjudgments of Grant and his Secretary of Treasury George Boutwell to stop them. Investigation revealed the involvement of the President’s brother-in-law, Abel Rathbone Corbin, but Grant’s association with Gould alone would have brought the scandal right to the door of the White House. In a prominent English journal, Henry Adams anonymously published an article on the scandal, hoping it would be picked up and reprinted often in the American press. It was, but Fisk and Gould never faced prosecution. The crash of Black Friday crippled the American economy for years afterward.

The most corruption Linney’s play touches on is the Whiskey Ring, involving Grant’s appointee General John H. McDonald and Grant’s own private secretary Orville E. Babcock. Even here, Linney only satirizes Grant’s alcoholism and his expurgated testimony. The play doesn’t mention that Grant fired special prosecutor John B. Henderson when he denied Grant’s wishes to hold Babcock’s trial in military court. Grant’s replacement, James Broadhead, not only allowed Babcock to be acquitted but also closed out all the other cases involved.

Material that could provide for four or five satires goes missing from both Adams’ novel and Linney’s adaptation. It becomes quite clear that we are dealing with American History Lite. But what Adams would not bring up out of a sense of delicacy or fear of reprisal, Linney most likely avoids out of our culture’s collective ignorance. If lite is the only way we can take it, all the worse for us, since forgetfulness like that can only leave us wandering in a fantasy theme park of a country–as make-believe as the fictions surrounding George Washington of which old Mrs. Dudley (Barbara Roeder Harris) disabuses the other characters on their day trip to Mt. Vernon.

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Who knows how much anyone is paying attention–since Senator Silas Raitcliffe (Jon Steinhagen) is wooing the recently arrived, beautiful young widow, Mrs. Lee (Rebecca Prescott), and young Episcopal minister Reverend Hazard (Stephen Dale) is in hot pursuit of Mrs. Dudley’s daringly bohemian niece, Esther Dudley (Nina O’Keefe). Director Steven Fedoruk keeps things light at Eclipse Theatre’s upstairs studio and focuses mainly on “who’s zoomin’ who.” He’s assembled an excellent cast in that case, able to handle the unevenness with which Linney has cobbled together Adams’ two novels.

The greater burden may be in portraying the younger couple–given their issues with mortality and proving improvable faith. Linney’s writing also doesn’t provide much in the way of romance for O’Keefe and Dale to connect with. But both actors do maintain the control needed to make their characters’ religious disputes personal and to temper the material’s overweening histrionics.

Democracy07 Linney’s adaptation allows the rest of the cast far more fun. Diplomat Baron Jacobi (Larry Baldacci), lobbyist Mrs. Baker (Cheri Chenoweth), and Mrs. Dudley are a hoot, as we say out here beyond the Beltway. Ron Butts and Sandy Spatz make an amusingly backwoods Mr. and Mrs. President, although why Butts doesn’t push Grant’s alcoholism further is anyone’s guess.

Sen. Raitcliffe and Mrs. Lee explore and expound their passions for politics as much as for each other. They form an arguably perfect pair, since each may be as ethically compromised as the other. Steinhagen, who recently played Judge Brack with sinister sophistication in Raven Theatre’s Hedda Gabler, throws out villainy for the blinkered guilelessness that Henry Adams wrote for the novel’s character—a man who regards “virtue and vice as a man who is color-blind talks about red and green.”

Why neither novel nor play delve much into Mrs. Lee’s ethical colorblindness remains a conundrum, since Raitcliffe throwing away millions of votes makes for less of a wake-up call than Raitcliffe receiving a bribe for his party. Could Mrs. Lee be the quintessential American—less likely to grasp political transgressions, but more able to understand the personal ones, like an errant blowjob or two? As Raitcliffe declaims during one of Mrs. Lee’s parties, politics in a democracy can only be as pure and honest as the people it comes from. A little more sophistication on the part of the American people couldn’t hurt either. A sucker may be born every minute, as another 19th century figure was fond of saying, but we should at least try to have the next generation of suckers be smarter than the last.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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