Romulus Linney’s new play, “A Lesson Before Dying,” is best experienced as a lesson in the pitfalls of adapting a successful novel to the stage. The esteemed playwright’s version of the story about a young black man who is falsely accused of murder and sentenced to the electric chair follows not only Ernest J. Gaines’ original novel, published in 1992, but also an HBO film that aired in 1999. Commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where “Lesson” had its world premiere earlier this year, the play receives its first New York production under the ponderous direction of Kent Thompson, artistic director of the festival. As with so many of life’s lessons, this one may be good for you, but rarely do such honorable intentions make for effective theater.
Anyone acquainted with Linney’s “F.M.” — a wonderfully sardonic one-acter set entirely in a college classroom — might expect this playwright to bring dramatic rigor to the story, perhaps telescoping the novel’s action to one locale: the death-row cell where the convict, Jefferson (Jamahl Marsh), learns that he is a man and not the hog that his own lawyer called him during the trial. Instead, Linney holds firmly to the novel’s three story lines, which, as his drama unfolds, increasingly gives the work a too-rigid structure that disjoints rather than expands upon the central drama of Jefferson’s education at the hands of a disillusioned grade-school teacher, Grant Wiggins (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who has his own serious issues of black identity in Bayonne, La., circa 1948. Instead of totally re-creating the story for the theater, Linney simply consigns the novel’s action to separate compartments of the stage where the three stories rarely confront or even inform each other in any visceral, dramatic way.
Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s sprawling set design confines Wiggins’ country classroom to one side of the stage, the bar room or bed he shares with his not-yet-divorced light-skinned (and Catholic!) girlfriend, Vivian Baptiste (Tracey A. Leigh), pushed to the other. Upstage is the jailhouse storeroom that acts as a meeting place for Jefferson, Wiggins and Emma Glenn (Beatrice Winde), who insists that her grandson not think he’s a hog on his way to the electric chair.
The novel and movie version of “A Lesson Before Dying” derive much of their dramatic drive from Emma’s dogged pursuit of visitation rights as well as her insistence that she see her grandson in a day room, rather than his death-row cell, so that they can all sit down for a dinner of her fried chicken. Since the play begins in the day room — or store room — the second half of this arc is missing. In its place, Linney substitutes a far less intriguing development: the revelation (at least to Wiggins) that Jefferson is actually innocent of the crime, a fact that is established from the get-go in both the novel and the film.
Emma’s dogged pursuit of her grandson’s final education is portrayed in a manner so blind to her lowly domestic station within the white power structure of Bayonne that her quest keeps spilling over from the heroic to the foolhardy and back. Winde’s teary interpretation is more conventional than what Irma P. Hall brought to the role in the HBO project and totally lacks the film actress’s blunt but threatening butcher-knife edge.
As Wiggins’ long-suffering girlfriend, Leigh is saddled with the weakest story line, and her characterization emerges as little more than a writer’s mouthpiece on discrimination within the black community itself. Gone is her big confrontation with the other women in Wiggins’ life, Emma and Tante Lou (a character Linney leaves offstage), who don’t much care for this Creole among them.
Whitlock brings a confirmed cynic’s humor to one of Linney’s best scenes — wherein Wiggins instructs his students on how to care for the tattered hand-me-down books from the white school — but too often he expresses his exasperation with the “vicious cycle” of student to convict by harrumphing and emitting occasional squeals, vocal equivalents of mugging that should have been retired along with Sherman Hemsley.
Marsh’s Jefferson is cut from rougher cloth. We’re never quite sure he’s going to succumb to the grade-school teacher’s lessons –or if he does, that he won’t quickly revert to turning the contents of his grandmother’s lovingly prepared picnic basket into hog fodder. When Marsh is onstage, “A Lesson Before Dying” sometimes leaves its shackles of predictability to become downright suspenseful.
Linney does improve on the film in one major respect: In the HBO version, Jefferson could be leaving Emma to go off on an unpleasant business trip rather than the electric chair. Linney, to his credit, does not shy away from Gaines’ harrowing indictment of the death penalty.