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The Justice Theater Project unveils its death penalty drama 

In the ranks of death

Still...Life

Justice Theater Project
Cardinal Gibbons High School
Closed April 15

click to enlarge Distant voices, still lives: (from left) Deb Royals, David Henderson and John Honeycutt - PHOTO BY SCOTT LANGLEY/ JUSTICE THEATER PROJECT
  • Photo by Scott Langley/ Justice Theater Project
  • Distant voices, still lives: (from left) Deb Royals, David Henderson and John Honeycutt

It's hard not to be fatalistic about the death penalty. Yes, that is a disgraceful pun. I only wish there were a lot less truth in it.

Critics owe their readers candor concerning their biases. I am opposed to capital punishment, and my writings on works dealing with this issue are likely to bend toward this view. When the state assumes an absolute knowledge reserved to the gods—that an individual deserves only the ultimate punishment—it embraces nihilism and the death of all hope instead. Even so, I could take but little cheer, compared to some, from a May 2006 Gallup poll which found that, when they were given the choice, Americans for the first time preferred a life sentence without the possibility of parole over the death penalty for convicted murderers.

The razor-thin difference in choices, 48 to 47 percent, fell within the survey's 5-point margin of error. In a survey of 521 individuals (half Gallup's usual polling sample), nine people—at the most—accounted for the entire degree of difference. Those results aren't reflected in larger professional polls. Meanwhile, an increasing number believe the death penalty isn't imposed often enough, and that it's administered fairly. The most charitable consensus I can find in all the numbers is that Americans are—and have been—split, more or less down the middle, on the issue of death versus life without parole.

This is the world into which Justice Theater Project brings Still...Life, a new play based on over two years' research into the effects of the death penalty in North Carolina. Such a work should come from our region: Since 1976, the South has been responsible for more than 80 percent of all death penalty executions in the United States.

The scope of the project artistic director Deb Royals described in a 2005 interview was daunting. Company members were interviewing death penalty advocates and opponents, relatives of victims and the condemned, corrections officials and guards, politicians, clergy and inmates, in an attempt to look at capital punishment from a number of angles. Director and designer Thomas Mauney's program notes reiterated the project's goals: "To be honest, clear and unprejudiced."

The words are noble. But we must question their appearance within a performance in which judgment seems clearly rendered at present, since Still...Life now bears the subtitle "An exploration of a killing state. North Carolina." At times the work bears stark witness to the sufferings of victims' families. Still, it remains a work constructed to advocate against capital punishment. At what point did this judgment take place?

Given the work's over-reliance on hoary reader's theater tropes—a chorus line of actors holding red notebooks, anchor lines from differing monologues whose gravitas is all but reduced to non-sequitur when they are lifted and spoken, in an elliptical cascade, repeatedly during the show—we also call into question the claimed "exploration of theatrical forms" here.

Instinctively, we know: At its base, the death penalty must primarily be concerned with passion. The term refers to the inflamed—and indeed, deranged—emotions, the "crimes of passion" whose response our culture remains divided over. For all this, the moments of true passion on stage are very rare in this production.

In Act Two, Leigh Lester Holmes is riveting when portraying an inmate's mother who all but screams "I am a ferocious tiger and that is my son." At the end of Act One, David Henderson recalls a moment of self-righteousness at a Morton Downey show 19 years ago. The moments are significant—they are the only times an actor raises her or his voice during the entire show.

The script repeatedly tells us that we're all capable of murder. Critically, though, it never begins to attempt to show us. Surely it's more than passing curious that a work seemingly devoted to examining every other moment of the capital punishment process shies away from the first one—the moment of blood.

As long as it does, despite its claims to the contrary, Still...Life keeps the monsters it claims it doesn't want us to believe in far too viable. Worse yet, it places them where they have the greatest strength: As every horror movie student knows, the scariest bogeyman is the one who stays just out of sight, in the shadows, off the stage.

If Still...Life had the forthrightness—perhaps that is the word—that Martin McDonough displayed in dealing with violence onstage in The Pillowman (currently on view at Durham's Manbites Dog Theater), the work may well have been stronger. But when the production doesn't trust its audience—or its subject—enough to show all the facts (including the ones most likely to alienate a group it's trying to influence), a teachable moment is lost. For us all.

In its absence we have intellectual appeals, and occasional (but not excessive) displays of human emotion.

To be fair, the other passion—the type related to that word's original etymology, a state of suffering and enduring—is evidenced with considerable integrity at times.

One of the highest ethical moments in Still...Life involves the accounts of victim's relatives now involved in activism. John Honeycutt's unnamed character says, "We did not choose this. It chose us. I'm never going to find peace, so if I can help somebody else get theirs, I think that's very important."

Significantly, though, this testimony does not arrive until the second act, long after Carole Marcotte's character, a victim's sister who opposes the death penalty, is first introduced.

Tellingly, the sequence appears well past a cheesy Looney Tunes-inspired cavalcade of blurted, partially unintelligible one-liners critiquing statistics supporting the death penalty, and just before "We've Killed Everyone, Man," a folk-song sing-along list of the recently executed.

We can easily sympathize with the impulse to lighten up the subject matter with a few jokes, here and there. But a work that actually seeks to change people's minds in the world doesn't aid its case by mocking the stands of the other side. Not if it wants those folks to keep listening. Nor does it do so by stacking the argument so the right side "wins."

Camus once observed we can't truly counter a belief through negation, but by endorsing an even higher truth. At points, Still...Life does. Where it doesn't, it lapses into the woes that afflict—and limit—the theater of social conscience. Would that it did otherwise.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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