Reviewed by Michael Lazan
Presented by Signature Theatre Company, 555 W. 42 St., Sept. 18-Oct. 15.
One of our most acclaimed playwrights and teachers, Romulus Linney knows that writing a play is not simply a matter of mapping out a well-intentioned story. A play must have inspiration, magic—a palpable music—for an audience to be truly engaged and interested. Strange, then, that "A Lesson Before Dying," an excessively sober exhortation on the virtues of public service, is such a tedious exercise.
The play, adapted from a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, is the first in the Signature Theatre Company's series of premieres by past playwrights in residence. It focuses on a black teacher named Grant Wiggins who is stuck in a small town in the forties and quite miserable about it. When a young black man named Jefferson is condemned by an all-white jury and sentenced to die, Jefferson's grandmother prevails upon Grant to teach Jefferson life lessons so he can die with dignity. And so the play consists of a series of encounters between the two men, until Jefferson begins to turn around and see himself as a man.
Paramount among the problems is that there does not seem any clear reason for Grant to be helping Jefferson (except for the fact that the playwright is trying to make a point). Compounding this, Jefferson is virtually a caricature of an oppressed black youth with no distinctive point of view or personal history. It's not surprising, then, that the cast ends up pushing much of the dialogue, with Beatrice Winde adding charm to the grandmother, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. adding energy and passion to Grant. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's set, of a back room at a courthouse, is a perfectly balanced combination of deadliness and hope, as accented by a huge window hanging off to the edge of the stage.
For more reviews including "Straight as a Line"; "The Propaganda Plays"; and "The Young Playwrights Festival," visit the Back Stage website at www.backstage.com .