TAMPA — All the elements for a potent drama are there. A young black man, wrongly accused of murder, faces execution in a small Southern town in the 1940s. A white deputy cop believes in his innocence but remains passive. An angry preacher tries to save the condemned man's soul while a cynical teacher reluctantly tries to instill in him some dignity in the final days of his life.
Add a script by Romulus Linney, one of America's most respected contemporary playwrights, and an acclaimed novel as source material, and A Lesson Before Dying would seem to be a sure winner. But, in its current Stageworks production, the play doesn't quite deliver on its implied promises.
It's consistently interesting, smart and thought-provoking, and mildly inspiring.
Still, its emotional impact feels oddly blunted, and its ultimate point is never totally clear.
Some of the problems are with the script, adapted from Ernest J. Gaines' novel. The book takes the reader inside the mind of Grant, an erudite African-American teacher who endures the indignities of the Jim Crow South and resents his rural African-American students who show no interest in improving their lives. The play obviously can't show us Grant's thoughts, and Linney (who died earlier this year) isn't completely successful in depicting them.
Directed by Anna Brennen, the acting isn't strong enough to help the audience over the obstacles in the script. There are no bad performances, but none evoke the kind of controlled rage that we need to see from these characters in these situations.
Joshua Goff is Jefferson, the innocent but convicted man, and for the entire play he is shackled. He shows his resentment by snorting, crawling and acting like an animal.
His godmother, played by Gloria Bailey, is determined that Jefferson should walk proudly to the electric chair, rather than be dragged.
R.T. Williams' set is beautiful but appropriately monotone, and Karla Hartley's lighting and sound designs are exceptionally clever and meticulous.
But the play and the production narrowly miss their emotional target. It's a show that leaves its audience entertained and enlightened, but curiously unmoved.
Marty Clear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.