Crime Plays: Marc Nicholson is condemned inmate Matt Poncelet and Daria Troxell is Sister Helen Prejean in 'Dead Man Walking,'playing Feb. 8-24.
The collaboration behind Pisces Moon's production of 'Dead Man Walking.'
By Traci Hukill
Two weeks before opening night, director Susan Myer Silton opens a rehearsal session for Dead Man Walking with the kind of news that would throw less hardy souls into a tailspin.
"We don't have a Herbie," she announces to audible gasps from the assembled cast and crew. Deftly sidestepping panic or despair, the energetic Silton explains that the actor has quit and asks everyone to approach all the potential Herbies they know. "Herbie's a small role, but he's important," she says. "He represents how the projects regard Sister Prejean."
As rehearsal gets under way, the outlines of an intriguing production take shape. The story of condemned rapist and murderer Matthew Poncelet and Sister Helen Prejean, made famous by the 1995 film starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, is an indictment of capital punishment and a discourse on the quality of mercy—but not a preachy one.
In the interactions of Poncelet, played by Marc Nicholson, and Prejean, played by Daria Troxell, the audience gets a taste of the ambiguity presented by playwright Tim Robbins, who adapted Prejean's book to screen and stage. Nicholson's Poncelet is by turns cavalier, angry and frightened as his execution approaches. Troxell's Prejean has an earnest but supple quality that gives her character complexity. The production is anchored by Troxell's voice—matronly, well modulated, with clear timbre and an unusually believable Southern accent.
What is not as clear onstage is the extent to which this production is a collaboration between Pisces Moon Productions and Delta High School, a Santa Cruz charter school for underperforming kids. As part of the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, the production must involve high school students (two cast members and 10 crew members are from Delta), it cannot be for commercial gain and the school in question must offer academic courses relating to the play. In Delta's case, the course work includes classes titled "The Death Penalty in the United States," "Activism in Writing" and "Forensics."
Delta Principal Mary Gaukel-Forster says the experience has "touched the whole school." "One of the capital punishment discussions I sat in on, they very clearly would say, 'Well, I understand how difficult it is to lose a child. It's not any more right to kill another person.'So instead of being polarized and saying Poncelet's depraved, they were able to look at it from both sides."
Something many adults could learn to do, too.
DEAD MAN WALKING opens Friday, Feb. 8, and runs through Feb. 24 at Cabrillo College Theater, 6500 Soquel Dr., Aptos. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8pm; Sunday matinees at 3pm. Tickets are $10-$15. On Friday, Feb. 15, Sister Maureen Fenlon of the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project will talk with the audience. For tickets visit www.piscesmoon.org or call 831.429.2328.
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