Adaptation of ‘A Lesson Before Dying’ begins Feb. 14
By Heidi HoltzContributing WriterRehearsals have started at Syracuse Stage for “A Lesson Before Dying,” adapted by Romulus Linney from the novel of the same name by Ernest J. Gaines. “A Lesson Before Dying,” directed by Timothy Douglas, has public performances from Feb. 14 through March 9. “A Lesson Before Dying” takes place in a Louisiana backwater, where an all-white jury sentences an innocent black youth to die. In his own mind, the young man considers himself no better than a hog condemned to slaughter. Determined to help, the young man’s godmother turns to a disillusioned and embittered schoolteacher to try to restore the youth’s sense of dignity and worth. In the shadow of the electric chair, the two men share a series of lessons that leave each irrevocably changed.Douglas, currently associate artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, returns to Syracuse after his staging of last season’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky.” Noting that many in the community have been reading the book, he says “it is both a challenge and an honor to bring this book to life on stage, giving it flesh and muscle and augmenting its varying themes.” He adds that both the book and the play tap into a deep faith: “There is a visual flow, a spiritual flow to this extraordinary story.”Charles Parnell plays Grant Wiggins, the schoolteacher who learns about the importance of education and community. Parnell’s New York credits include Pirandello’s “I’m Dreaming, But Am I?” and “I.D. Please.” Regionally, he played the title role in “Othello” at Arkansas Rep. Dyron Holmes plays the role of Jefferson, the convicted prisoner. He was last seen at Syracuse Stage as Lance Corporal Dawson in “A Few Good Men.” His U.S. credits include “Fences” and “A Few Good Men” at the Hangar Theater in Ithaca. Lizan Mitchell plays the role of Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother. Mitchell has performed onstage on Broadway, off-Broadway, in regional theatres throughout the United States and also in Johannesburg, South Africa. Most recently she was seen on television in “Law and Order” and “Third Watch.” She has received the Black Theatre Award and Helen Hayes Award for Best Actress.Rochelle Hogue plays Grant Wiggins’ girlfriend, Vivian Baptiste. Some of her theatre credits include: “Troilus & Cressida,” “When We Are Married,” and “Lurleen” (all at Alabama Shakespeare Festival); “Step In and Stand Clear” and “In Bob’s Wake” (both at Ensemble Studio Theatre); and “Good People” (New Perspectives Theatre). She recently shot an episode of “Third Watch” and has been seen on several national commercials. Charlton James plays Paul Bonin, the young deputy who is Jefferson’s jailer. Some of his regional theatre credits include Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s productions of “Love’s Labours Lost” (King Ferdinand), “A Winter’s Tale” (Florizel), “King Lear” (Oswald), and the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of “As You Like It” (Sylvius). Larry John Meyers plays Sam Guidry, the town sheriff. Some of his other stage credits include off-Broadway (“Three Sisters”) and regional theatres from Berkeley to Boston, Dallas to Vermont. His film and television appearances include over 20 roles in movies such as “Up Close and Personal,” “Hoffa,” “Runaway Train” and “The Temptations.” William Charles Mitchell plays the Reverend Ambrose. He most recently in “The Piano Lesson” at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. He has performed in numerous plays regionally, off-Broadway (including two seasons at Jean Cocteau Repertory Co.) and off-off-Broadway. Films include “Murder Rhapsody,” “Kiss It Goodbye,” “Copland” and “Wiley Spindell.” Set Designer Tony Cisek has created a stage environment that, in the words of director Douglas, “reflects the fact that the play is a part of Grant’s deepest psyche and memory.” The looming, whitewashed brick walls have one small window, with a limited sky view similar to the view from jailhouse windows. The single upstage entrance is marked by a 14 foot by 22 foot image of Jefferson’s face, watching all of the action through a narrow gap in the walls. The lighting designer is Dan Covey, who has designed nationally as well as extensive productions throughout the Washington, D.C., area.Costume designer Tracy Dorman, whose designs have been seen throughout the country, has created 1940s era clothing in soft palettes. Sound designer Jonathan Herter will fashion the music for the production.Ernest J. Gaines won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction in 1993 for “A Lesson Before Dying.” Made into a successful 1999 HBO film starring Cicely Tyson and Irma Hall, the novel was an Oprah Book Club selection in 1997. Playwright Linney, winner of multiple fellowships, grants and awards, adapted the novel last year. “It is the stuff the theatre cries out for, because it is nothing less than authentic, honest tragedy,” says Linney. “I can’t think of anything more powerful, more devastating than this story. But it is not a polemic. It is a tragedy.” Gaines, who has been awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant for writings of “rare historical resonance,” says the idea for “A Lesson Before Dying” had haunted him for most of his adult life. Living near San Francisco and aware of the regularly scheduled San Quentin executions, he “felt horrible the entire night before and all day. You can imagine what the person being executed went through.”The Associated Press’ Michael Kuchwara writes, “‘A Lesson Before Dying’ builds strongly to its preordained ending. Even though the outcome is never in doubt, the play’s last moments are unexpectedly heartbreaking.” Syracuse Stage has joined with local schools and a number of cultural, political and youth organizations to create a program called “If All of Central New York Read the Same Book.” The goal is for all members of the Central New York community to read the book and thereby establish a common basis for discussing issues of vital importance. Book clubs, libraries, schools, corporations and youth groups have been reading the book since the kickoff of the initiative on Oct. 14, 2001. Gaines visited Syracuse Feb. 1 and 2 (including an appearance at the Schine Student Center on Feb. 1). Tickets for “A Lesson Before Dying” are on sale at the Syracuse Stage Box Office at 443-3275 or online through syracusestage.org. Prices range from $15 to $38.