A Lesson Before Dying

Rated 2.0

This play revolves around an illiterate, impulsive young black man living in rural Louisiana circa 1948. He is awaiting execution for the death of a white man he didn’t kill. That the inmate will be electrocuted is not in doubt. The question is how he’ll handle himself when the time comes: with whining or with dignity?It’s based on a prizewinning 1993 novel by Louisiana native Ernest J. Gaines. (This sometime San Franciscan also wrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Gathering of Old Men.) This production by Chautauqua Playhouse features several performers from January’s And the Dream Goes On! A Celebration in Song, Word and Dance, and others who’ve appeared at River Stage.

Unfortunately, this promising nexus of literary material and local acting talent achieves only a portion of its potential. Rookie director Lorne A. White brings some scenes to life, but others are choppy. At times, the show feels more like a procession of related scenes than an escalating sequence.

Late in the rehearsal process, White had to step into the role of the black schoolteacher who reluctantly counsels the young inmate. White conveys his character’s conflicted feelings: The teacher wants to leave the segregated South for California but is duty-bound to the community that put him through college with the expectation that he’d teach the children. Alas, White labors under the sheer number of lines—quite understandable, but it hampers the show.

Yet, there are aspects to admire, as well. There’s a great scene late in the play where the teacher and the inmate finally connect. Kory Kyker is remarkable as a potbellied deputy who comes to admire the young man he’s guarding. Lamarr Dixon as the inmate, shackled in chains, creates a powerful visual image, in addition to giving an effective performance.