Steve Earle has made his name recording dark, hard-edged alt country about people fighting the lives they’ve been given. That sensibility hits the theater with “Karla,” his unabashedly opinionated rumination on Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War. As a songwriter, Earle thrives on challenging American politics — a recent album featured a controversial track about John Walker Lindh. He brings the same critical, articulate voice to his stage debut.
Though it bears the marks of a novice playwright, “Karla” quakes with the regret of people gone astray. Unsurprisingly, Earle’s major achievement is his language: He has a perfect ear for Southern slang and speech patterns, and he gives them powerful shape. When Karla (Jodie Markell) first addresses the audience, for instance, she tells us quickly about the killer she was and the born-again Christian she’s become. “You wanna see what a pickaxe murderer looks like,” she says, “well, she ain’t here.”
There’s a softness in such lines — and in Markell’s doe-eyed delivery — that eerily contrasts with the bloody story. The play unfolds in purgatory, where ghosts from Karla’s past — mother Carolyn (Linda Marie Larson), boyfriend Danny (Jeremy Schwartz), victims — confront her in a series of courtroom scenes. As she faces each spirit, Karla does her best to atone, to defend her God-fearing soul, but there’s no forgetting what she did. Death is everywhere. Her victims have pickaxe holes in their chests –even Carolyn and Danny have the pallid skin of corpses.
The gore gives eerie weight to the whispering chants of the ensemble, which hisses taunts like “guilty” in Karla’s ear. Director Bruce Kronenberg finds the right blend of creepiness and straight-ahead acting to keep the mood sinister without veering into camp. In early scenes, he also guides Markell to a gentle perf that insists the dead woman has been redeemed. She makes Karla so plainspoken and guileless that in the afterlife, the dead seem to be attacking her.
But when she was alive, we’re told, Karla was the toughest woman around. Unfortunately, we never see this angel’s demon side. Taking a cue from “Dead Man Walking,” Earle stages the moment when Karla kills, but the sanguine Markell can’t call up the fury to make it work. To give the show balance, she should be able to demonstrate the traits that made Karla vicious, since her conversion to Christ can’t land if we never see what He saved her from.
The rest of the cast, especially Schwartz, round out their perfs to show both kindness and violence. Earle’s script has an obvious structure — each supporting character deals with Karla, then follows a white light up a staircase — but the actors’ fiery readings jolt the predictable dramaturgy.
The ensemble keeps the overwritten monologues sounding fresh. Earle belies his lack of experience by rarely letting silence or brevity make a point where three hundred words will do. Since the topic at hand is so charged and relevant, it’s a forgivable sin, but the playwright’s point about the evils of the death penalty could be stronger if he would just stop talking about it and let images speak for themselves.
As it stands, he lurches finally into didacticism. Despite some heavy-handed conclusions, however, “Karla” still stings as an unsettling account of punishment, death and resurrection.