The unexpected death of a child is the greatest loss a family can endure. Every day, children perish from poor-judgment accidents, while others kill each other with cars and guns. But when adults are the perpetrators—especially if any type of sexual molestation is also involved—society places them in its darkest chamber of contempt, secretly hoping that other slightly less reprehensible felons will dish out permanent justice to the accursed.
Youth who commit capital offences are protected by law because society believes they are too immature to pay for their crimes in full. Many of those troubled beings have suffered the ravages of bullying, the cause of which is often their own inner turmoil about such personal things as sexuality (cross-reference below) or body image. If not forgiven when their guilt is proved, these wayward souls are, at least, “understood” and sent on the path, hopefully, of rehabilitation.
Tragic as they are, the finality of those incidents is at least crystal clear to those family members who are processing the sudden deaths. But many thousands more die far before their time, unable to defeat the invisible demons of cancerous cells and disease. The result is the same, but no one expects the source of a terminal illness to ever be absolved.
Throughout Dead Man Walking the issues surrounding forgiveness and redemption are sung, said and shown but mainly left unresolved in the minds and hearts of those on both sides of the stage.
It falls to the two tiers of societal reflection, religion and art to lead us through Sister Helen Prejean’s real-life journey of first learning how to forgive then prepare the likes of Joseph De Rocher (John Packard) for execution, having himself murdered and raped a teenage couple where, naked, they frolicked innocently one dark night in Louisiana.
As the nun, Kristine Jepson brings a quiet determination and beautifully measured tone to the central role as she and her flock of youngsters encourage and cajole their elders to “gather us around.” Her own transformation from spiritual assistant to agent of truth is generally convincing, but her emotional bonding with De Rocher happens more off stage than on, robbing the drama of greater heat and passion as the inevitable end approaches.
For his part, Packard looks convincing and sings with authority, but never comes across evil enough. Much of the problem occurs in the opening sequence where production director Leonard Foglia’s staging of the horrific murders (Shannon Murphy and Michael Dunay as the doomed couple appear more to be engaged in calisthenics than the throes of torrid love) skirts the grisly acts so as to neither shock nor offend. Consequently, our outrage is more assumed than stoked.
Bits of Terrence McNally’s dialogue, especially the attempts at comic relief (De Rocher to his distraught younger brothers “We only cry when we run out of beer.”) get the laughs but only serve to confuse rather than confirm his characterization of the doomed parent.
The gem of this production is Judith Forst’s wonderful rendition of De Rocher’s mother. Her deeply-rich timbre coupled with exceptional body and facial expressions make her anguish and unfailing love for her remorseless son the dramatic highlight. Not far behind is James Maddalena’s portrayal of Owen Hart, the murdered girl’s father. His final realization that De Rocher’s death won’t relieve any of his pain—the essence of the work—is memorable.
Foglia, ably assisted by Michael McGarty’s flexible prison set and Brian Nason’s telling lighting plan, seems content to let the declaimers move and react to one another’s actions and words, but then stand and stare like pillars when not directly involved. This does help to emphasize the isolation of the protagonists, but also gives many scenes a stiffness that slows the emotional pace.
Conductor John Mauceri provided sympathetic accompaniment and leadership throughout, but many of Heggie’s stratospheric string lines failed to ring true. The foreboding, beautifully coloured score allowed the hymns to truly rise above, but, like De Rocher’s inner being, remained less understood than revealed even as his journey ended. JWR