Theater Review - Theatrical Outfit takes on the death penalty in A Lesson Before Dying

Theatrical Outfit's production of A Lesson Before Dying initially resembles a study in dated theatricality. Romulus Linney's death-penalty drama, set in Louisiana in 1948, feels like the kind of clunky, midcentury social-issues play that spells out and repeats its themes in the most blatant possible terms.

It's kind of a shock to remember that Ernest J. Gaines published the acclaimed novel in 1993 and that Linney premiered the adaptation at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2000. Directed by Jill Jane Clements, A Lesson Before Dying frequently creaks under the playwright's heavy hand, and some stilted performances hinder the momentum even further. But the play builds to an unquestionably powerful climax. It ends much better than it begins.

Elderly Miss Emma (Veronica Redd) asks schoolteacher Grant Wiggins (Johnell J. Easter) to counsel her godson Jefferson (Eric J. Little), a former student who's languishing on what passes for death row in a small Louisiana parish. The characters focus less on his likely innocence than on the inevitability of his execution in a racist community. His public defender compared his death sentence to "electrocuting a hog," driving the young man into a depression for his final days. Grant tries to guide him to face death with pride and dignity.

Although Grant has a college education and Jefferson can barely spell, Easter and Little reveal both roles as portraits of self-loathing, cultivated by a bigoted social structure. It seems to take forever for the two men to engage with each other, but once they do, Easter and Little bring out the best in the material, and their compelling interplay shows how each learns from the other how to be a man in the face of despair.

A Lesson Before Dying's final scenes provoke powerful feelings by touching on essential truths of mortality and the human condition. The ending blows away the play's earlier flaws like cobwebs.

A Lesson Before Dying. Through Nov. 23. Theatrical Outfit, Balzer Theatre, 84 Luckie St. Wed.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. $30. 678-528-1500. www.theatricaloutfit.org.

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