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WHAT: "A Lesson Before Dying"

WHEN: Begins in previews Sunday, opens Thursday and continues through March 11

WHERE: Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main St.

ADMISSION: Preview: $16 to $28; regular: $22 to $42; Pay what you can ($10 minimum) on Feb. 11

INFO: 856-8025

"To die with dignity" is a phrase that has meaning only when the person doing the dying is somehow lifted from the paralyzing fear of death and grim circumstance and - through a process of self-realization that only the dying can fully comprehend - allowed to see life anew. This is the process that Ernest J. Gaines, in his affecting best-selling 1992 novel, "A Lesson Before Dying," so ably articulated through the story of a young black man living in a small Louisiana town in the late 1940s.

In a humiliating trial in which even his own defense lawyer assaults his character, the man, named Jefferson, is condemned to die for a crime he didn't commit. Grant Wiggins, the town's black schoolteacher, is called on by the young man's grandmother to restore some sense of dignity to her grandson's remaining life.

Gaines' work was made into a play last year by Romulus Linney, the winner of two Obie Awards and the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of the Arts and Letters, among other honors. The play is to be staged by Studio Arena Theatre as a commemoration of Black History Month. Claude Purdy, a native of the region depicted in the play, will direct. Purdy directed August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Studio Arena in 1995.

The cast includes Marlon Morrison as Jefferson, Ed Blunt as Grant and Carole-Jean Lewis as the grandmother, among others. A number of special events will be offered during the run of the play, highlighted by post-theater talk-backs, preshow discussions and a preshow party at 6 p.m. next Friday with complimentary hors d'oeuvres.

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