Theater review Nona Nelson was deeply moved by Showtimers’ “A Lesson Before Dying.” Did you see it? What did you think?
‘Lesson’ a compelling look at heroism
By Nona Nelson
Showtimers Community Theatre kicks off its 2013 season with a powerful performance of “A Lesson Before Dying,” a tragic play of dignity in the face of injustice.
The play, written by Romulus Linney and based on the eponymous Ernest J. Gaines’ 1993 novel, tells the story of Jefferson, a young black man in 1940s Louisiana, facing execution for a murder he witnessed but did not commit.
Resigned to the inevitability of Jefferson’s fate, Miss Emma, his godmother and surrogate parent, wants to help him face the terrifying end of his life with dignity, something that was not afforded him during his poorly defended trial.
She recruits Grant Wiggins, the teacher at the plantation school, to help Jefferson. Wiggins, whom the black community of Bayonne, La., helped put through college, is less than enthusiastic about the task. His jailhouse visits include enduring the condescension of the smug white sheriff with humility and finding an unwilling and confrontational student in the poorly educated and clearly frightened Jefferson.
Wiggins himself is torn between what he sees as the futility of trying to make a difference, both in his daily classroom and his pilgrimages to the jail, and his desire to escape to a better life away from the bigotry of the Deep South. As a non-believer, Wiggins is also constantly at odds with Reverend Ambrose, whose sole purpose in ministering to the condemned prisoner is to save Jefferson’s soul.
Despite the dark topic of this play (the novel was also chosen as a community Big Read book in early 2010 by Roanoke Valley Reads), there are moments that are tender, funny and inevitably, heartbreaking.