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Kiss of life: Law and El-Amin in A Lesson

{mosimage}A young African-American man, sentenced to die in the electric chair in 1946 Louisiana after being convicted of killing a white grocery-store owner, eats from a bowl without using his hands, as though to show the world that he really is the “hog” that his public defender had called him during the trial. The lawyer’s point was about the way he was being treated, not who he was, but such distinctions are almost beside the point when you’re on death row in a small Southern town. Jefferson (Malik B. El-Amin) didn’t kill anyone, and the injustice is a given in A Lesson Before Dying— Romulus Linney’s 2000 stage adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines’ novel at Actors Group Theater. (The novel was adapted into an HBO film in 1999.) Wrong place, wrong time: Such is life, such is death. Everyone in a local liquor store got mortally shot during an attempted robbery — everyone except poor, dimwitted Jefferson, who was literally just along for the ride. The cops found him with money from the cash register in his hands, and a few corpses by his feet. That’s all they needed to wheel in the e-chair to a prison storeroom and haul in a generator and some black curtains for the illusion of propriety.

In works such as Heathen Valley and Holy Ghosts, Linney has shown himself to be a theological playwright who gravitates toward rural American settings where poverty, and the Bible that softens it, are the great equalizers. So his attraction to Gaines’ novel isn’t difficult to fathom. His adaptation is faithful to the spirit of the book, which is more about the paradoxes that ensue from questions of faith than the indignation aroused by a travesty of justice.

Jefferson’s godmother, Emma (understudy Vivian Vanderwerd), recruits local schoolteacher Grant Wiggins (Eddie Goines) to instruct Jefferson on how to die like a man, how to walk to the death machine with dignity, rather than being dragged howling and cowering like a beast to the slaughter. For reasons that are entirely understandable, Jefferson initially shows contempt for such heroic posturing. But when he sees how Wiggins was willing to get beaten up to defend Jefferson’s honor in public, and the townsfolk contribute money, foodstuffs and a radio for Jefferson’s material comforts, the condemned man starts to understand that his death will be no ordinary one, and that his behavior must be similarly extraordinary.

In her program notes, director Penny L. Moore cites Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath to give the play relevance — an invocation that’s partly apt in the way the hurricane showed how vulgar inequities in ownership, opportunities and human worth are still bound to race in this country. That’s only the backdrop to Linney’s play, however, because this isn’t a story of justice and injustice but of conscience and consciousness. The protagonist may be the doomed young man, but the central character is actually Wiggins, the black schoolteacher and atheist who must continually ask himself, what is the point of behaving with dignity when circumstances offer you none? To answer this question, he must wrestle with the provocations from his girlfriend, Vivian Baptiste (Syr Law), that he’s too self-involved with lazy cynicism; and also from the Reverend Moses Ambrose (Gregor Manns), who holds the medieval view that life here is just an audition for the next world, so get over questions of social justice and get on with saving souls. (Martin Luther King he ain’t.)

If one must be topical, what springs to mind more than Hurricane Katrina is the execution of Saddam Hussein, whose fearlessness at the gallows under humiliating circumstances did more to mitigate the butcherous deeds of his life in the minds of his countrymen than any argument or trial. The play is structured as a deathwatch, with suspense derived more from the clock ticking down than action winding up. Near the end of Act 1, we learn that the governor just approved the death sentence — as though there’d been any doubt.

Some of the characters are similarly generic — the good cop and bad cop, played respectively by Shannon McClung and William Murphy (and played well).

There’s some very accomplished acting on the stage, particularly by El-Amin, whose passions as the brooding Jefferson emerge through the musculature of body language and facial expressions. As Wiggins, formally costumed by Moore in old-school white shirt and slacks, Goines captures the teacher’s deep discomfort with his task of salvation by employing the nuances of a tortured soul that are more idiosyncratic than predictable. Law, as his girlfriend Vivian, shows a similar blend of tenderness and abrasiveness, though coming from motives contrary to his.

Moore’s storeroom set is nicely detailed, but the countdown to death would have far more momentum if not interrupted by a series of pauses, during which furniture is rearranged with much clunking in the dark. If Wiggins feels himself brought down to earth from moments of transport, so do we.

{mosimage}A news photographer, Michael (John Montana), sees his own daughter on the brink of drowning in a lake. Rather than rushing in to save her, he imagines — in the split second that would make the difference between her living and dying — the photograph, the pixels, the contours, the setting. This detachment is a consequence of his having spent decades photographing death and dying in war zones. It forms the philosophical centerpiece of British playwright Chris Thorpe’s theatrical study in alienation, Safety— a finely crafted production by the Closet Space Theater at the McCadden Place Theater, thoughtfully directed by Peter Forster.

In that split second, an illiterate neighbor, Sean (Mac Brandt), rushes in and saves the child — a testament to the power of action over reflection — perhaps even over art. In the aftermath, it would be vulgar of Michael not to invite the fellow over for dinner. The scene onstage is a microcosm of modern British realism — the gulfs of incomprehension among people of different classes straining to remain civil over cocktails, the harrowing pauses, the staring past each other, the utter lack of common ground as Michael’s wife, Susan (played with brittle rage by Peggy Goss), finds herself inexorably drawn to the ignorant man of action.

Meanwhile, the arrogance and erudition of her husband and his parasitic work fuel their growing separation. Michael has spent his life clicking images of people on the brink of dying, people cursing him in that moment for not doing anything to help, if anything could be done. That nothing could be done is Michael’s defense of his livelihood and his life. He argues for the virtues of showing life’s brutality.

This play, like A Lesson Before Dying, is about lives transformed by the moments leading up to death. It too concerns the spiritual malaise of a skeptic. There’s no clock ticking, however. Safety is structured around an interview with Michael by a gorgeous journalist-seductress (Katrina Lenk, a powder-keg performance sealed with duct tape — all poise about to unravel) in a dreary hotel room somewhere, nowhere. From that garret, with its foldout bed (spartan set by Russ Borski), Thorpe engages us on an elliptical journey from war zones to the Midlands. In a cozy British home, it’s just a different war. The venue is cold and filled with echoes, which ironically serves the play, though the occasional piano tinkling of Erik Satie has a softening effect. Where A Lesson culminates in redemption, Safety lands on the opposite. And that may reflect the most fundamental difference between the American view of life and death, and the British one.

A LESSON BEFORE DYING | By ROMULUS LINNEY, based on the novel by ERNEST J. GAINES | At the ACTORS GROUP THEATER, 4378 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Through Feb. 18 | (818) 585-8880

SAFETY | By CHRIS THORPE | Presented by THE CLOSET SPACE THEATER at the McCADDEN PLACE THEATER, 1157 N. McCadden Pl., Hlywd. | Through Feb. 18 | (818) 780-0661


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