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LA Theater Review

A Lesson Before Dying

What a difference a decade or two or three makes. Playwright Romulus Linney's adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines' award-winning novel focuses on the impending execution of a black youth for the murder of a white storeowner, a crime he did not commit. The action occurs in 1948 rural Louisiana. Were it set in current times, the action would likely have centered on efforts by legal advocates and death penalty opponents to overturn an unjust verdict and save an innocent man's life. But it was not so six decades ago, especially when the situation involved black-on-white crime in the deep South, an all-white jury, an inadequate defense, and an uneducated, frightened, African-American defendant. And it's that different standard of justice, coupled with the unfair application of the death penalty to minorities, that are front and center in the Gaines-Linney writings.

Here the action focuses on twin lessons: Emma Glenn's efforts to teach her godson Jefferson, the wrongfully convicted man, how to die with dignity, and Emma's secondary attempt, along with Vivian—girlfriend of Grant Wiggins—to teach Wiggins to accept the value of his schoolteacher profession and the responsibility his work entails regarding his students and the community he serves.

This production features a veteran and talented, mostly African-American cast. Baadja-Lyne brings an intensity and gravitas to her portrayal of the elderly, heartsick Emma. Malik B. El-Amin seems perfectly cast as the confused, scared, and angry condemned man who struggles to come to terms with Emma's lesson, the crime he witnessed, and his impending fate. Syr Law brings a sincerity and a sense of reality to her role as Vivian. Eddie Goines is outstanding as Grant, a disillusioned, frustrated teacher who discovers what it really means to be a teacher and learns a valuable lesson about death and dying in the process. Also first-rate are Gregor Manns as the Bible-thumping preacher; William Murphy as the self-absorbed, bigoted sheriff; and Shannon McClung as the good cop who knows an injustice is being done.

Director Penny Moore, who also designed a compact and artful set that includes a schoolroom, barroom, and storeroom, guides this powerful and moving drama with a deliberate and careful hand.

Presented by and at the Actors Group Theatre, 4378 Lankershim Blvd., Universal City. Fri.-Sun. 8 p.m. Jan. 13-Feb. 18. (818) 585-8880.

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