Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dead Men Walking

Chris Chalk and David Patrick Kelly (photo by Erin Baiano)

When I Come to Die
Written by Nathan Louis Jackson
Directed by Thomas Kail
Starring Michael Balderrama, Chris Chalk, Neal Huff, David Patrick Kelly, Amanda Mason Warren

Performances through February 26, 2011
The Duke at 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street

In Nathan Louis Jackson’s When I Come to Die, Chris Chalk gives a searing performance as an inmate who is the beneficiary of a botched execution: though pronounced dead by lethal injection, he inexplicably awoke and is now alive and well—but still on death row.

After the failed execution, prisoner Damon doesn’t exactly get religion, but does find himself drawn to the prison chaplain, Father Adrian Crouse, with whom he talks about the best college basketball teams and fights through his confusion over the meaning of his new lease on life. Outside the prison, the local papers have dubbed him the “Marion County Miracle,” and public outcry has made the warden hesitant to re-schedule his execution immediately.

Jackson’s drama doesn’t harp on the so-called miracle, instead concerning itself with day-to-day existence. Damon—who collects his unread, returned letters to his family over the years he’s been waiting to die for the murder of a policeman and his baby—takes one out to read aloud. This therapy of sorts helps Damon get through the resounding nullity of the 23 hours a day he spends in his cell, as do his conversations with his cell neighbor Roach, so named because he catches bugs to keep as pets to stay sane.

This straightforward, unsentimental play moves briskly to its foregone conclusion in 90 minutes, asking (and partially answering) a moral question: can the perpetrator of a heinous crime appreciate the dignity of life that he has denied to others? Thomas Kail’s sensitive direction balances the prison setting’s bleakness with such existential questions.

Chris Chalk finds a myriad of ingenious ways to characterize Damon, whether through a slight smirk or a raised eyebrow or full-bore bellowing at the top of his lungs: this magnetic performer is riveting while speaking, reacting or simply lying on his bunk in his cell. Complementing Chalk’s powerful portrayal are David Patrick Kelly (Roach), Neal Huff (Crouse), Michael Balderrama (prison guard) and Amanda Mason Warren, whose scene as Damon’s sister Chantel paying her big brother a far too belated visit (with self-serving overtones) is far and away the play’s most emotionally draining.

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