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Theater Thu May 12 2011

Review: A Lesson Before Dying @ Lincoln Square Theatre

lbdGEJ.jpg

L to R: David Lawrence Hamilton, Mary Helena, and Barth Bennett in the Lincoln Square Theatre production of A Lesson Before Dying.

Lincoln Square Theatre has taken on Romulus Linney's play A Lesson Before Dying (written, incidentally, by actress Laura Linney's late father), a play of no small consequence based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines in which a young black man named Jefferson is sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit in Bayonne, Louisiana, in 1948. I wasn't sure what to expect -- I'd never heard of Lincoln Square Theatre, and when I located the address, was confused for a moment when I saw a banner for the play hanging outside the Berry Memorial United Methodist Church. The theater itself is housed in the basement of the church; "this is either going to be good," I thought, "or really, really bad."

The seven person cast is supported by a creative artistic staff that includes Director Kristina Schramm, Costume Designer Erica Hohn, and Dialect Coach Rachel "Goose" Haile, who also worked on Passing Strange, currently in production at Bailiwick Chicago. The spare but roomy stage is used to maxiumum effect, subtly separated into three main areas that represent the jailhouse where Jefferson is being held, the dilapidated room that school teacher Grant Wiggins teaches in, and a restaurant where Wiggins meets with his girlfriend Vivian Baptiste, played by Elana Elyce.

David Lawrence Hamilton plays Grant Wiggins, a central role which ties the piece together; I don't think there was a scene he didn't appear in. Playing the challenging role of Jefferson, the unjustly accused youth, is Barth Bennett, who brings to the role a quiet anger interjected with dramatic bursts of defiance that shakes the audience out of any complacency they might have brought with them to the theater.

In the role of Miss Emma, godmother to Jefferson, is Mary Helena, whose storytelling roots come through in her portrayal of an elderly woman trying desperately to make the best of a grim situation, enlisting Wiggins to somehow teach Jefferson how to face death with dignity.

In supporting roles are Elana Elyce as Wiggins' girlfriend, Rudolf D Munro III as Rev. Ambrose, Jereme Rhodes as Deputy Paul Bonin, and Ed Schultz as Sheriff Guidry.

The words of the play are powerful on their own, and hearing them spoken aloud in the quiet of a church basement was somehow appropriate given the gravity of subject at hand. Opponents of the death penalty would do well to see this play, as would anyone who wants to expand their experience of Chicago theater. I heard sniffles around me in the final scene, which depicts, with grace and dignity, Jefferson's execution. It was a scene I knew was coming, and that I dreaded for fear that it might be inflammatory for it's own sake, or overacted; it was neither. I left the theater feeling both a little heavier and a little lighter than when I'd entered.

A Lesson Before Dying runs through June 11, performance times: Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3 and 8pm. Tickets are $20, $12 for students and seniors, and can be purchased online, or in person at the door. For more information or reservations call 773-275-7930.

 
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