Strong writing, powerful performances, and flawless helming soften the blunt impact of “When I Come to Die,” the latest in a string of good works coming out of LCT3, the developmental shop that a.d. Paige Evans oversees for Lincoln Center. In Nathan Louis Jackson’s existential drama, a prisoner on death row at Indiana State Prison miraculously survives his own execution and puts himself through the agonizing struggle of trying to understand what that might mean for the rest of his life. For such a thoughtful piece of writing, the play’s dramatic setting and episodic structure present intriguing cinematic possibilities.
Chris Chalk (“Fences”) delivers a powerhouse perf as Damon Robinson, the convicted murderer who went into the execution chamber expecting to die from a lethal injection — and somehow walked out alive.
Since Damon doesn’t talk about the crime that landed him on death row, it’s easy to take him as he is right now. A smart guy who engages the prison chaplain in intelligent conversation. A sensitive guy who writes eloquent letters to members of his family who won’t open them. A nice guy who helps a fellow inmate get through the ordeal of waiting for his own execution.
But Chalk is too honest an actor to sentimentalize this complex character. There’s a controlled, but fierce energy to his performance that keeps threatening to explode. Whatever crimes Damon may have committed, Chalk makes it clear that this man is capable of real violence.
Intimations of violence hang in the air, in the tense atmosphere established by helmer Thomas Kail (“In the Heights,” “Lombardi”).
Officer Cooper (the highly watchable Michael Balderrama), the prison guard who paces the catwalk and handcuffs Damon for his visits to the chaplain, silently suggests that he could snap a man’s arm. Damon, however, seems capable of causing a cellblock riot.
A palpable sense of menace also comes from Damon’s fellow prisoners on death row — unseen, all of them, but clearly heard in Jill BC DuBoff’s sound design.
Intimations of insanity also hang in the air, and they’re mainly coming from the next cell, where a skinny old man with wild white hair is obsessively struggling to write his last words. As played by the invaluable David Patrick Kelly, the prisoner known as Roach (because he keeps bugs in his cell for companionship) is so crazy and sad and scary that his execution almost seems a mercy.
Jackson (“Broke-ology”) has written some simple, but stirring exchanges for Damon and his next-door neighbor, easing the way for the thesps to establish a weird, but genuinely intimate rapport.
The scenes between Damon and Father Adrian Crouse, the prison chaplain played with earnest compassion by Neal Huff, are trickier. Their relationship deepens in stages, as Damon goes from demanding answers about how he escaped certain death to seeking the priest’s advice on how to best to use the gift of time he’s been given.
Damon’s sister, Chantel Robinson (Amanda Mason Warren) represents one opportunity to use that gift when she pays him the first visit he’s had in all his years in prison. Although her motives would seem to be entirely self-serving, Jackson has written her with more complexity than that, and Warren plays her with exquisite shades of conflicting emotions.
For such a downbeat play, it does have a compelling message. “The men here are starved for contact,” according to the chaplain. And while Damon thought he had prepared himself to die, in the end, he used the gift of time to make the human connections he’d been denied all his life.