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Hard-Learned Lesson 

At the end of the first act of A Lesson Before Dying, currently on the boards at Southern Rep, I sat in stunned silence for several moments, before I started to applaud. Apparently, I was not the only one who had had the wind knocked out of them; my applause was the first. This lack of response was not an indication that the actors had failed, but that they had done their work too well. We in the audience needed a chance to return to our senses.

A Lesson Before Dying by Louisiana native Ernest Gaines tells a deeply affecting story from a thoughtful and complex point of view. And Tommye Myrick's production of Romulus Linney's stage adaptation is noteworthy for its clarity and conviction.

In 1948, in a small south Louisiana town, a poor, uneducated black field hand named Jefferson has been sentenced to death for the murder of a white store owner. His court-appointed attorney at one point in the trial referred to Jefferson as a hog. Jefferson's aunt is appalled by this. She is determined to bring some measure of peace to the young man's final days -- and to fortify his spirit so that he can go to his death with dignity.

She entrusts this task to her godson, Grant, whom she also raised. Grant went off to college and has returned to teach grammar school in the area. He does this "giving back" to the community with reluctance and resentment. His students' lack of motivation and the blatant unfairness of the social system conspire to make his efforts "a pitiful waste of everybody's time." Being a college-educated black man makes him a lightning rod for animosity. He gets it from all sides: the bigoted white sheriff and the self-taught black minister. It is unlikely that even the gratitude he feels for his godmother could keep him from leaving.

But, he has fallen in love with a fellow teacher. He cannot bear to lose her respect. And so he finds himself coaxed, cajoled and coerced into promising he will visit the condemned man and try to help him accept his fate. That this means submitting to the contemptuous arrogance of the sheriff is bad enough. But the real sticker is that Jefferson doesn't want any part of being helped. He has withdrawn into a silent, aggressive nihilism; he calls himself "a hog" and defiantly acts the part.

The world presented is full of nuance and irony. Jefferson foolishly got into a car with some low-lifes, who -- finding they didn't have enough money to buy liquor -- started to help themselves. The store owner pulled a gun on them. They were also armed and went for their weapons. The store owner fired, they fired back. Three men fell dead. Jefferson stuffed some money into his pocket and started drinking liquor to calm his nerves. He was not entirely innocent. But he was not a murderer, either. Even the derogatory remark by the court-appointed lawyer was not quite what it seemed; it was a desperate attempt to avoid a capital sentence for his client. And so it goes, for each facet of the story. There is an unblinking even-handedness that makes the reality that much more disturbingly real.

The cast does an excellent job bringing these interwoven conflicts to life. Don Guilory in the demanding central role of Grant shows us the man's essential and unruly candor -- a quality that, in some senses, makes his task more difficult, but also insures its ultimate success. Tory Andrus is a troubling, forceful presence as the young back country prisoner, utterly bewildered by his fate. The lovely Fahnlohnee Harris endows Vivian with just the right mixture of sensuality and intelligence; a Beatrice who leads her wavering lover back onto "the true path." Quinton Ray gives us a minister who is all too human -- and all the more interesting because of it. While Carol Sutton rivets us with a restrained, intense, and utterly fascinating performance as the aging, stalwart country matriarch.

The white world is effectively evoked by Kevin Fricke, a real SOB of a sheriff; and by Daniel LaForce, the deputy -- a decent sort who becomes involved in the poignant struggle he is forced to witness.

Chad Talkington's set is detailed and evocative, while Trish McLain's costumes and props are tasteful and apt.

Finally, I have to admit that, for me, the second act never quite matches up to the first. Seeing how the conflicts are worked out, though interesting, does not involve us with same intensity as our first encounter with them. Nonetheless, A Lesson Before Dying is local theater at its best.

click to enlarge A reluctant Grant (Don Guillory) tries to give condemned prisoner Jefferson (Tory Andrus) A Lesson Before Dying, at Southern Rep.
  • A reluctant Grant (Don Guillory) tries to give condemned prisoner Jefferson (Tory Andrus) A Lesson Before Dying, at Southern Rep.


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