A Lesson Before Dying, Romulus Linney’s adaptation of the best selling novel by Ernest J. Gaines, ends its run by Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre Company, Oct. 22. The drama, which received mixed-to-positive reviews looks at the intense friendship struck between two black men in 1940's small town Louisiana — one a convict, sentenced to die and the other, a schoolteacher, who has already given up. Kent Thompson directs this New York premiere originally commissioned and performed by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
Featured in the production are Isiah Whitlock (The Iceman Cometh) as the schoolteacher, Beatrice Winde, Jamahl Marsh (as the convict) and Aaron Harpold. A Lesson Before Dying began Sept. 5 and opened Sept. 17.
Though the drama might be construed as anti-death penalty, the real theme of the work concerns the way the prisoner is perceived in 1948 American South society. Though the poor, uneducated young man may very well be innocent, he was “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” and his lawyer has defended him by saying he’s “no better than a hog.” To the doomed convict, this is permission to act like a pig, but his godmother wants him to die “like a man,” while the local preacher urges him to spend his last weeks on earth renouncing worldly things and praying to God. Caught in the middle is cynical schoolteacher Grant Wiggins, who agrees to help the doomed convict learn to behave like a man, even as he questions the point of it all.
For tickets and information on A Lesson Before Dying at the Signature Theatre Company’s Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street, call (212) 244-PLAY.
* In other Signature news, Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons and Obie and Drama Desk Award winner Hallie Foote star in the world premiere of Horton Foote's The Last of the Thorntons, beginning in November. Signature's founding artistic director James Houghton directs this Harrison, Texas, tale of the last of powerful clan dying off with only her memory of what was. The Last of the Thorntons runs Nov. 21-Dec. 31 with an opening on Dec. 3.
Signature Playwright-in-Residence Adrienne Kennedy will be honored in February with the New York premiere of Urban Zulu Mambo, directed by Henry Godinez, helmer of the original Goodman Theatre production of Feb. 2000. Taylor performs the one woman show, which includes the four short pieces, Safe Box by Corthron, Talking to Jupiter by Parks, Evertime [sic] My Lil World Seems Blue, I Just Haveta Look at You and Learn Eye-Hand Coordination, a selection from Shange's novel "Liliane" and Urban Zulu Mambo by Taylor.
Signature Theatre has revealed the title of the Lee Blessing play which will arrive May 1-June 10, 2001. The Blessing premiere will be Thief River, about two men seen at three crucial times in their lives, from adolescence to old age. Each of the play's three scenes take place in the same dilapidated farm house.
As previously reported, the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons at Signature feature new plays from the nine playwrights honored with year-long retrospectives during the Signature’s first nine years of existence. Maria Irene Fornes, John Guare, Arthur Miller and Sam Shepard will be on next season’s slate.
--By Robert Simonson