Providence High School’s and Central Catholic High School’s joint theater productions are typically musical comedies, most recently The Wiz. Last weekend, however, they took on Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking, the stage adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir of her relationship with convicted murderer Patrick Sonnier. Directed by Barbara Helen Baker, the production is part of a larger school theater project by Robbins and Prejean, requiring students to study the issue, and the memoir, outside of theater. In this case, the text was part of the religion classes’ curriculum.
The play revolves around Prejean and Matthew Poncelet, a character composite of Sonnier and another death-row inmate, Robert Lee Willie. Playing Prejean, sophomore Adrian Bates, however untrained (and perhaps because of it), brought a natural innocence to the character; an awkward unfamiliarity with the issue as much hers as it was the character’s (during the post-play discussion, she recounts how two weeks before opening, she was brought to her knees with emotion). In contrast, Andres Campion had a more difficult obstacle to overcome: dark skin that clashed noticeably with Poncelet’s white-supremacist litanies and tattoos. Nevertheless, drawing from his comedic experience, Campion pulled off the fragile, protective arrogance of the killer’s character. Daniel Vargas also performed convincingly as Earl Delacroix, the conflicted father of Poncelet’s victim, struggling to find forgiveness despite the agony of grief.
The anti-death-penalty position of the play was stated boldly on a poster in the foyer, and as a Catholic-school production, the issue was framed in the classic Biblical debate — eye -for-an-eye vs. turn-the-other-cheek — with the audience encouraged to side with Prejean’s contention that the New Testament trumps the Old. The message driven home, though, is that if the public is forced to confront the humanity of death-row inmates, the only moral conclusion is that capital punishment must be abolished.
If it had been a perfect perfomance, the audience would’ve shivered with dread and guilt when the guard calls out “Dead man walking,” during Poncelet’s walk to the injection table. It wasn’t a stunning performance, not compared to the budget of the film adaptation, with its proper prison setting, and the talents of Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. But that wasn’t the point. The something that happens in high-school theater is the growth within the student performers themselves; by dwelling in the story—whether it be the lightest clouds of comedy or the shadows of the American psyche—they’re forced to grow up a little, and understand that the world isn’t just gym shorts and corsages.