Anyone who appreciates live theater bolstered by profound social commentary will welcome Dead Man Walking, the collaborative venture between Moonlight Troupers of Anne Arundel Community College and Dignity Players of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis.
Also sponsored by AACC's Institute for Criminal Justice, Legal Studies and Public Service, the Moonlight Troupers-Dignity Players production of Tim Robbins' play opened last weekend in Humanities 112 on the Arnold campus and continues in the intimate theater space tonight and tomorrow night.
Based on Sister Helen Prejean's award-winning book and the movie recalling her experiences as a spiritual counselor working with death-row inmates in the Louisiana penitentiary system, Dead Man Walking tells the story of Matthew Poncelet, sentenced to die for the killing of a teenage couple, in his search for spiritual counseling.
Veteran director Mickey Handwerger is the founder and artistic director of Dignity Players, now in its second season.
Past productions include such socially relevant theater as The Exonerated, which chronicles the experiences of six innocent people who spent years on death row before being cleared, and The Laramie Project, telling of the 1998 killing of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard.
This project, Handwerger said, could only have been produced as a School Theater project. Permission was obtained by Barbara Marder, AACC chair of performing arts.
Marder also serves as producer, with AACC's Rob Berry as technical director and scenic and lighting designer.
Handwerger has drawn together a stellar cast headed by veteran actors Jim Gallagher as Matthew Poncelet and Kathleen Ruttum as Sister Helen Prejean, supported by Richard McGraw, who plays Chaplain Farley and Clyde Percy, father of the murdered girl. Most of the actors play multiple roles, with Sue Struve playing Lucille Poncelet, the condemned man's mother and Sister Helen's mother.
Handwerger uses AACC's intimate space to heighten the power of this story told in straightforward documentary style.
The minimalist set is divided by a fencelike structure to indicate bars separating Poncelet's cell from the visitors space. Side space is used to convey action taking place outside the prison. At the rear of the stage are television monitors and a projection screen to document historical events in text and photographs.
All cast members are convincing. McGraw is excellent as Chaplain Farley, espousing his eye-for-an-eye creed with powerful body language as he also conveys the priest's conservatism toward having a nun act as a prisoner's spiritual adviser.
Ruttum's powerful, restrained portrayal of Sister Helen has a wrenching emotionalism evident beneath her courageous, composed surface. She displays an intense struggle to understand Poncelet, a palpable sympathy for the victims' parents along with a compelling belief in human dignity and in the Christian message of redemption.
Gallagher's Matthew Poncelet rings absolutely true, conveying a sneering, strutting racist who is capable of rape and murder but eventually, in his honest dialogue with Sister Helen, accepts some of the guilt of his actions in order to become humanized and worthy of redemption.
Most of all, this is a story of a human relationship between two people who gain insight into each other as they convey some powerful teachings of Christianity.
The play and this production's greatest triumph is that it never becomes sentimental, thus better delivering a momentous message.
"Dead Man Walking" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. today and at 7 p.m. tomorrow in Humanities 112. Information and reservations: 410-777-2457.