That’s the sound of a heavy door closing and there are plenty of those sounds from the formidable concrete walls, steel bars, open catwalks and heavy mesh of the set by Jared Rutherford in the IU’s Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center production of “Dead Man Walking.” It’s a masterfully involving evening of theatre directed by Dale McFadden.
“Dead Man Walking” is the traditional call as a condemned man is led to the execution chamber. The play by Tim Robbins is based on a book by a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean. It’s an account of her work as a spiritual counselor for a convicted killer, her empathy for him and for the parents of his victims.
Sister Helen, in a masterfully developed performance by Lilia Vassileva, is drawn into counseling a convicted murderer Matt, played with awesome depth by Henry McDaniel. Matt is at first as a mere pen pal. Sister Helen is a bit naïve and innocent about the depth of the vicious murders that he committed and even more unaware of the complexities of the court system. With the help of a crusading young attorney played by Eric Young, she fights through the maze of the legal system at the same time that she’s working with Matt in an even more frustrating battle to find the man under his layers of macho bravado.
As if these challenges weren’t enough, Sister Helen is being asked by Alex Dodge and Tema Sall as the parents of the young boy that Matt killed and Jeff Craft and Kirsten Olson as the parents of the young girl that Matt brutally raped and killed why she’s not counseling and supporting them in their grief and need for vengeance. In addition, Matt Herndon as a young tutee, back at the sister’s home base in New Orleans projects is asking why she’s working with a vicious killer instead of helping him with his home work.
“Dead Man Walking” is a very mature and complex play. It’s clearly against the death penalty, but there’s plenty of concern for the safety of society and for the feelings of the victims. Even in the first act ending as groups outside the prison for and against the death penalty chant the Lord’s Prayer, it’s a commentary and not a parody. There are no cardboard characters and no straw men in the play
“Dead Man Walking” plays Tuesday thru Saturday nights at seven thirty with a matinee on Saturday at two in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre.