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Years ago I had a writing teacher who was given to pompous assertions. That’s not unusual, of course. In any workshop setting, pat pronouncements like “show don’t tell” are particularly thick on the ground. What set this guy apart was the AmericanGreetings preciousness with which he spoke. “The greatest special effect in the world,” he said to me once, “is one person touching another.”
I remember thinking: Wha? And: Wait, is he hitting on me?
In Roundhouse’s solemn adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, there’s a moment of contact between two characters, which is, I now realize, exactly what the old guy was getting at. A beautiful woman (Rachel Leslie) reaches out to touch the face of a condemned man (Shane Taylor, effortlessly affecting here), and you watch that simple act shudder through him, changing him, lifting him up.
She has come to the courthouse jail where he awaits execution to tell him, well, not much, really. Just that he is in her thoughts, and that, in fact, the whole town is thinking about him. That’s it. Not that she and they believe him to be innocent (which he is), or that they are praying for him to be released (which he won’t be), but simply that they care about him. It sounds sappy as hell, and in clumsier hands, it would be. But director Timothy Douglas knows exactly how to pitch this scene. Leslie’s voice radiates a sincere warmth you’ll feel in the back balcony. Taylor’s reaction to her presence and her touch is just right: disbelieving, almost fearful but equally, achingly real.
That scene comes straight from Gaines’ 1993 novel. Many other parts, including extended subplots involving a white school superintendent and a rich plantation owner, didn’t make the cut. Romulus Linney’s script restricts its focus to the relationship between Taylor’s doomed inmate and an embittered schoolteacher played ably and intently by KenYatta Rogers.
In adapting the book for the stage, however, much of the subtext of that relationship has been pushed to the surface, and too much of it has acquired a didactic tone. Scenes between Rogers and girlfriend Leslie, for example, tend to assert and underline things in dialogue that are readily apparent dramatically. That impulse results in cringe-worthy bits of business like this one, voiced by Leslie in full-on Jiminy Cricket mode: “How can you expect this boy to face the electric chair when you can’t even face yourself?” That is Linney’s script hedging its bets, failing to trust that the audience will pay attention to anything that isn’t spoken aloud.
Onstage, the book’s Reverend Moses Ambrose loses his roundedness and edges closer to stock villain status (though he does get to keep his best speeches, which Greg Brown serves up nicely). And you can’t help but think that the play, and the book, might be more engrossing if the condemned man’s innocence weren’t so flatly and unambiguously established.
Tony Cisek’s set—a storeroom littered with office furniture—lends the proceedings a realistic, dun-colored grubbiness. Cisek has included two stylized features to do his symbolic heavy lifting: a high window through which a patch of impossibly blue sky is visible (that one works nicely) and a giant photomural of Tyler’s face peeking through a gap in the walls (that one’s maybe a bit too on-the-nose).
Several early scenes in Roundhouse’s staging feature long, leaden silences. They occur before the audience has enough information about situation and character to invest them with real meaning, which is probably why the first act feels sluggish. As the play builds to its climax, in which tears are well and truly jerked, those silences finally take on the satisfying weight and substance they’re supposed to.