Dead Man Walking
Observer Scene | Monday, February 28, 2005
After committing heinous crimes and sauntering around the Philbin Studio Theatre without remorse, it’s hard for a death row inmate like Matt Poncelet to gain the sympathy of a nun. It’s even harder for audience members to muster any sympathy.So why were so many of them crying at the end of “Dead Man Walking?”The experimental performance, based on the novel and movie by Sister Helen Prejean and adapted by Tim Robbins, plunges the viewer into a morass of emotions in two intense hours. The play is performed as a semi-staged reading where the cast members sit in a circle of chairs, with the audience seated around them. The format emphasizes the raw human emotions of everyone involved in capital punishment cases. “Dead Man Walking” is being performed as part of the Spring ArtsFest: Tolerance and Reconciliation, a two-week presentation of music, film, theatre and discussion. The ArtsFest also includes the production of “The Laramie Project.”Prejean (Siiri Scott) begins by talking about how she came to be a pen pal for death row inmate Poncelet (Mike Dolson). Prejean’s work with the disadvantaged makes this a natural extension of her work, since the death row inmates are all too poor to be able to afford good legal counsel. The lights go down as Poncelet’s letter in response to Prejean is read. In the letter he describes how he doesn’t receive letters or visitors.Poncelet’s first appearance when Prejean visits him in his cell is an unpleasant scene. Dolson perfectly captures his character, who is unlikable from the start. The audience has vague information about his crimes of murder and rape. As the story unfolds more of the grisly details are revealed, but even before the bodies of the young victims are described there is a disturbing and horrible quality about Poncelet. Dolson felt that this was an essential aspect of presenting the conflict in the debate, and that it is better for viewers if they’re not quite sure how they feel in the end.”You wouldn’t have learned in the same way if you came and it was just an attempt to be very sympathetic,” Dolson said of his character’s relationship with the audience. “You should be torn about the character at the end.”Given the publicity surrounding his case, Prejean is understandably bombarded from all sides by people who question her motives for becoming involved with such a brutal convict. She herself admits to feeling trapped in a way, and is not able to explain fully why she has to help him. His first appearances evoke no sympathy-even when he speaks of his young daughter in foster care, his offensive language about her mother and his frequent racial slurs turn the audience away emotionally.”Do I scare you?” he asks Prejean. He might as well be addressing the audience too.The more explicit description about his crimes that follows drives the point home about what kind of person Poncelet is. Words and lines overlap and mingle as several readers speak at once about the violent killings of a 17-year-old girl and an 18-year-old boy. The lives of the young couple, who were shot in the head, raped, kidnapped and repeatedly stabbed, seem not to affect him.The first time Poncelet lets down his guard is when the state begins to usher in an age of lethal injection as opposed to the electric chair. He calls Prejean because she is all he has, raising the issue about the fairness of a legal system where it seems poor people accused of crimes don’t stand a chance in court. His concern for his mother is another gradually revealed indication that he has a heart-he insists that she cannot be in court because it will tear her apart.Lucille Poncelet (Mary Ann Moran) plays one of the most effective supporting characters, a mother who is embittered by the dubious celebrity her son has earned her. At first she is defensive and suspicious, but relents eventually. She speaks angrily about being the “mother of a killer,” where people recognize her and make cruel comments, but becomes sad when showing a picture of her son as a young boy and wants to know what she did wrong.The scene in which the two lawyers present their cases for and against Poncelet highlights the complexity of moral issues such as capital punishment. Both sides are persuasive and logically presented, until the two men are speaking at the same time with equally emphatic tones and neither can be heard over the other. Adding to the conflicting sides of the debate are the appearances of the parents of the victims. Prejean must face opposition to her involvement from many people, but is deeply affected by the families of the victims. Scott said that one of the hardest aspects of her character was her need to balance both sides.”Everything is very gray, there is not black and white,” Scott said. “What he did was horrible, nobody’s saying it wasn’t, and you look at the parents’ pain, and you don’t know what to do. There’s a line in the play, ‘Every person is worth more than his worst act.'”Earl Delacroix’s (Paul Berrettini) description of his and his wife’s grieving process after the murder of their son is one of the many touching moments in the play. Also eliciting sympathy at this point, however, is Poncelet himself in his concern for his mother when he says he doesn’t want her to have to plan his funeral. Both sides are given a chance to win the audience’s favor, although the horrific details of the crime are not glossed over.In the end, there is no tidy conclusion because there cannot be with such an intricate debate. There are more victims than winners, although there is a certain satisfaction with the way events are played out. Especially moving are Poncelet’s hesitant acceptance of faith, and his interactions with his family toward the end. His relationship with the nun who couldn’t stay uninvolved has become deeper at this point, and his open display of emotions, which was absent at first, connects him even more with the audience.A post-show discussion focused on the themes of the play, going along with the ArtsFest aim of discussion. Bryce Cooper portrays lawyer Hilton Barber, who fought against Poncelet’s execution, and said that there is a place for this type of discussion at Notre Dame.”I think there are a lot of things that Notre Dame people in particular just accept without thinking about it, and don’t ever challenge their views,” Cooper said. Scott, who co-directs with Jay Skelton as well as playing a leading role, agreed about the play’s potential for discussion.”I think that the death penalty is an issue that is political as well as religious,” Scott said. “It’s important as well for students to start to get involved and start to form their opinions on their own. They’re out of their parents’ homes, they’re ready to start looking at things that we do in this country and judging them for themselves.”She emphasized the fact that the goal of the play was not to promote one side over another in the debate.”I think those two sides are the ones that should get into conversations about the death penalty because we don’t learn about the other side until we engage or confront the opposite opinion,” Scott said.Dolson pointed out also the play’s Catholic perspective in the death penalty discussion.”It’s sort of a side of Catholicism that’s sometimes overlooked, a more compassionate side,” Dolson said. “The outstanding compassion that Christ asked for … it just allows you to think about that.”Cooper thought that the format of a semi-staged reading fit into this play in particular.”I don’t think a staged reading would work with everything, but I think it works with this because of the kind of way it’s made-I think Tim Robbins is used to doing things with movies so he has these flash-in, flash-out things that you couldn’t really do onstage as easily,” Cooper said. “I think it’s easier to do with this where you can just change the lights a little bit or just make it a little more dramatic … it’s better in this type of situation.”
“Dead Man Walking” will be performed Tuesday and Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Regis Philbin Studio Theater. Tickets cost $8 for students, $10 for faculty, staff and seniors and $12 for the general public.