Picture how a TV drama might do this one. It's 1948 in Bayonne, La., and a young black man named Jefferson has been found guilty of murdering a white man during a robbery. Two other black men involved were killed in the violence that ensued, leaving the innocent Jefferson to become the requisite sacrificial figure in the racist justice of that time and place.
You can see the dramatic flashbacks: the detailed re-enactment of the bloody murder, an agonizing court scene and the final tearful realization by all of the young man's tragic fate.
Playwright Romulus Linney might have been forgiven if he had written the story this way for the stage. The temptations of time-fractured narrative are great in a contemporary theater keenly aware of the appealing seamlessness of cinematic time. But, wisely, he chose a traditional route, and this stage adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines' novel "A Lesson Before Dying" is all the more moving for that choice.
The play proceeds in the plain, old-fashioned way with past events revealed through realistic dialogue among the characters -- no monologues, no extended descriptions. All the action takes place some time after the crime and conviction, as the confused Jefferson (Marlon Morrison) waits in his cell for his execution date to arrive.
In a dusty jailhouse storeroom, Jefferson is visited by his godmother, Emma Glenn (Carol-Jean Lewis), who brings along Grant Wiggins (Ed Blunt), the local black teacher, in the hope that he might ease some of Jefferson's pain. At first Wiggins, a bitter man cast in a self-doubt that approaches self-hatred, is reluctant to help. He is won over only when he recognizes that Jefferson is in a state of self-loathing so profound that it threatens his very sense of his humanity.
Linney's first act is a subtle affair in which he introduces a group of characters who have opposing reactions to the racist society in which they must live. On the negative side are Wiggins and Jefferson. The compassionate Emma and a good-hearted, if closed-minded, preacher by the name of Moses Ambrose (Herb Downer) are the good positive-thinking folk. And then, as an antidote to the naysaying Wiggins, there is his strong, optimistic girlfriend, Vivian Baptiste (Delissa Reynolds).
Dramatically, this first act is a tough, incremental climb to the psychological transformations that happen in Act 2. In Studio Arena Theatre's final preview performance Wednesday night, director Claude Purdy may have taken the climb too slowly and cautiously. Each actor seemed to be working in his own little envelope of air. You could see why Purdy didn't want Morrison and Blunt to get too entangled early on, lest it ruin the fine emotional stuff that was to come later between Jefferson and Wiggins.
But then there's Lewis' Emma, a key figure in the first act. Purdy -- maybe looking for a little comic relief in a somber tale -- lets a stereotype slip in with this character and her hyperexaggerated, pinched, squeaking voice. She delivered her homemade chicken to her godson as if she were a comic huckster in a 19th century black roadshow.
What stereotypes do is gather surface characteristics and pretend that they tell the whole truth. The more the stereotype, the less real feeling. Lewis conveyed little real feeling. What makes this so distressing is that the tragedy of the story happened because of the powerful stereotypes of blacks sustained in the South of post-World War II.
In the superb Act 2, Purdy recovers the terrible and immutable fact at the center of the play: that a young man will be executed for a crime he didn't commit. With Lewis on the sidelines, there is a heart-rending scene between Vivian and Jefferson, followed by others of equal emotional power between Wiggins and the condemned man. Even the stock bigoted sheriff (Richard Hummert) has his momentary flash of enlightenment.
Then, at the end, the sheriff's deputy, Paul Bonin (Jordan Matter), who has been gradually revealing his pain at the great injustice of Jefferson's death, emerges as an emotionally galvanizing figure in the final scenes.
And Linney does, just once, at the very end, break into the narrative flow of his play. Done with simple, dramatic staging in this production, it is a heart-wretching moment in a play with many such moments.
A Lesson Before Dying
Romulus Linney's play based on Ernest J. Gaines' 1992 novel about a young black man living in a small Louisana town in the late 1940s who is condemned to die for a crime he didn't commit.
Directed by Claude Purdy, featuring Marlon Morrison and others. Presented in celebration of Black History Month.
Through March 11 in Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main St. (856-8025).