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Dead Man Walking

[This review appeared in the Denver Post on Tuesday, May 1st.]

Any discussion of the death penalty these days quickly gathers religious and moral overtones. Not many of these exchanges result in communication on the subject, which is why the Denver Victorian Playhouse's current production of Dead Man Walking is important.

Since Tim Robbins' 1995 film version, for which both Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn were nominated for Oscars (she won), the derivative stage version has become part of Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project. This Glass Slipper Solutions production is a collaboration with CU (Boulder and Denver), Regis, DU, and Everitt Middle School.

Like abortion and war, executions are a magnet for red and blue polarization, and yet the play, like the film, lets everyone have their say, including the murderer himself, Matt Poncelet.

Steve Pardum as Matt Poncelet
Steve Pardum as Matt
Poncelet, Photo: Denver
Victorian Playhouse
Played by Steve Pardum, Matt smolders in sullenness and withering cynicism, seasoning his exchanges with racist and sexist diatribes. Whether pacing his ominous cell on Death Row or sitting and discussing points of legal strategy, Pardum is haunting, never letting us forget the explosive anger boiling just beneath his skin.

Steve Pardun as Matt Poncelet and Terry Ann Watts as Sister Helen Prejean
Steve Pardun as Matt
Poncelet and Terry Ann
Watts asSister Helen
Prejean, Photo: Denver
Victorian Playhouse






State-mandated behavioral choices allow Matt to select a spiritual advisor, bringing Sister Helen Prejean into his life. Prejean—whose adherence to the teachings of Jesus rather than the church fathers causes friction with both Catholic and civil authorities—is the perfect moral rudder for this true story.

Downstage narrating story details or midstage performing the role itself, Terry Ann Watts fully inhabits Prejean's spiritually-centered life, creating a vibrant contrast between her loved-based behavior and the vengeance-filled instincts of other believers, of whatever so-called faith they may be.

Facing down the warden and the prison priest as well as confiding her doubts to her mother, Watt's Prejean shows her compassion and her conviction as a fully integrated life in the service of others.

Jeff Garner as Clyde Percy, Jacqueline Garcia as Mary Beth Percy, Steve Pardun as Matt Poncelet, and Terry Ann Watts as Sister Helen Prejean
Jeff Garner as Clyde Percy,
Jacqueline Garcia as Mary Beth Percy,
Steve Pardun as Matt Poncelet, and
Terry Ann Watts as Sister Helen Prejean
Photo: Denver Victorian Playhouse
Solid performances from the victims' parents and a few other key roles provide a strong counterpoint to the question of Poncelet's redemption. The remainder of the twenty performances vary in verisimilitude according to experience, but are nonetheless consistent with the poignancy of director Angela Astle's production.

Sleek flatscreen video monitors punctuate the action with dates, times, photographs, and choice statistics, for example: the worldwide incidence of poverty (two-thirds of the planet at or below); consumption levels in the U.S. (48% of world use by 6% of the population); incarceration growth in the U.S. (.5 million in 1980, 1.1 million in 1990, 2.2 million in 2000); comparative funding support for education (down 25% in 1980-90) and criminal justice (up 29% in same period); and images of the crime scene.

Steve Pardun as Matt Poncelet and Terry Ann Watts as Sister Helen Prejean
Steve Pardun as Matt Poncelet and
Terry Ann Watts as Sister Helen Prejean
Photo: Denver Victorian Playhouse
Concurrent with the increases in poverty, crime, incarcerations, and executions is an increase in exonerations, an inseparable issue underscored in this story by Poncelet's claims. DNA tests have exonerated nearly 200 people since 1986, while many more were refused such testing. Clearly, the death penalty is one of the central indicators of our direction as we come to the crossroads.

The Denver Victorian Theatre's production of Dead Man Walking runs through June 3rd. 303-433-4343.

Bob Bows

 

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