THEATRE REVIEW: “A LESSON IN DYING”

Jacksonville Beach based Players by the Sea opened Romulus Linney’s  “A Lesson Before Dying” at 106 6th Ave N. The show will run through February 28 2015. Call 904-249-0289 for reservations.

This play was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and opened Off-Broadway in 2000. Alabama Shakespeare FestivalLinney adapted Ernest Gaines 1993 award winning novel of the same name. It was also made into an HBO movie in l999 with Don Cheadle and Cicely Tyson.

The play is set in l948, in the fictitious small town of Bayonne Louisiana. An African American man, Jefferson (Jereme Raickett) has been accused of killing a white store owner.  Mr. Raickett gives a moving performance as the condemned man. This is challenging role for him from the various musical roles he has played in recent years at the Alhambra Theatre and Dining.

In Jefferson’s defense, his white lawyer compares him with a lowly hog to indicate that he did not have the sense to know what he was doing. He was nonetheless convicted and sentenced to die.

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photo: Bradley Akres

Jefferson’s godmother, Emma, who raised him, is very disturbed by this treatment and if he must die to do so with the dignity of a man. Emma is played by award winning actress Toni Philips, who puts across her agonies with a delicate restraint that leaves the audience in no doubt of her hurt.  Emma convinces Jefferson’s former teacher Grant (Larry Knight), who taught him in the 4th grade, to mentor him to help him develop self esteem. Grant has his own issues and is very disgusted with his job and the living in the South, and is planning to leave. Tired of teaching in a substandard school, using hand-me-down books from a white school, Grant tries to persuade his girl friend Vivian (Kristan Jackson) to go with him, but she is in the process of a divorce and won’t leave until it is final.

This is a demanding role for Mr. Knight, as he is on stage most of the show. As an actor Knight’s many characterizations have been varied and he is always unfailingly convincing. Ms. Jackson makes her local debut on stage as Vivian. She is very attractive and very earnest in her compassion toward Jefferson.

Grant’s job to mentor Jefferson is not made any easier by Reverend Ambrose (Peter Jackson), a bible thumping preacher, who feels that Jefferson only needs to find the lord and to be saved before he meets his end.  Mr. Jackson, a UNF music major, is well known for his marvelous singing ability in operas as well as dramatic roles in “ Les Miserables” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”.

photo: Bradley Akres
photo: Bradley Akres

Rounding out the cast are two members of the law. Joseph Stearman is Sherriff Guidry, who likes his justice rough and his ethics slippery. Stearman was in Players’ “Glengarry Glen Ross” and Theatre Jacksonville’s  “Tea and Sympathy”.  Mike Van Dyke in his theatre debut is Paul, an assistant deputy, whose attitude toward the prisoner turns to compassion and he believes him to be innocent.

Brian Grant is makes his debut as a Director  and was assisted by Megan Georgeo. I guess if you are going to jump into the water it may as well be in the deep end. Grant & company have chosen a difficult play as his first time out and the acting is precise, patient and measured and the staging is tight and well conceived.

Mr. Grant also designed the set, which has 3 parts on the same stage. To the left is a cocktail lounge where Vivian and Grant meet several times. In the center is the scene most used and is a rather cramped storage room in the jail, which apparently is the only area where visitors may see prisoners. To the far right is a long table and blackboard, the domain of the teacher, Grant.

In most shows with several scenes, as this one has, you have the opportunity to applaud frequently, but not so, with “Lessons” as the each scene moves swiftly from one location to another, with just the lights briefly dimming.

You will find this to be a provocative theatre experience. It is interesting how Grant and Jefferson reach out to each other slowly, haltingly across a canyon of hopelessness. It is a play that bursts with conflict, racial politics and social consciousness.

I have two suggestions. First the music in the bar scene in Act 1 was too loud making it hard to hear the actors. Secondly, for some reason in Act 2 the lighting in the bar and the store room was brighter and better than in Act 1.

This is a play that sets the wheels of though spinning in our brains. For example, I wondered why Jefferson’s trial was not declared a mistrial when his white court appointed attorney made disparaging remarks about his client to the jury? Southern justice in the l940s was another thing, indeed.

If you miss this show, you owe yourself an apology.

The Creative Team for Lessons, included Nichole Ignacio (Stage Manager) Jim Wiggins (Technical Director), Nicole Kosnik (Lighting Design) Gayle Featheringill (Costume Designer) and Erik Anderson (Sound Designer).

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.

april, 2022

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