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Sister's Acts

Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont stages Sister Helen Prejean's 'Dead Man Walking'

By Richard von Busack

UNDAUNTED by the death and dismemberment practiced upon him in puppet form in Team America, Tim Robbins has completed a play version of his much-honored 1995 anti­death penalty film, Dead Man Walking. Under the direction of chair of the Department of Theater Arts Michael Elkins, Robbins' play has its world premiere and a short run at Notre Dame de Namur University, a small Catholic college in Belmont, originally founded in San Jose in 1851.

The 10 performances (through Nov. 7) commence with a celeb-studded Oct. 22 $200-a-seat gala, including a pre-show discussion. Robbins will be on hand. And, her schedule permitting, so will his partner and star Susan Sarandon. Also attending will be actors Mike Ferrell, Robin Wright Penn and her husband, Sean Penn, who created the role of the killer and rapist Matthew Poncelet.

The true guest of honor is Sister Helen Prejean, whose bestselling memoir Dead Man Walking was the cause of it all. Sister Prejean was on campus two years ago during one of the 200 speaking engagements she makes a year. According to Lucille Sansing, the university's provost, the nun was struck by the level of political outreach at NDNU. The students already frequently participate in execution-night vigils at San Quentin. Sister Prejean commented that she'd never been to a school where the students were already so actively opposed to the death penalty. The day after Sister Prejean visited, she called back to begin discussing the possibility of staging Robbins' theatrical version of her book. "Two and a half years and a lot of sweat equity later, we're ready to begin," Sansing said.

At the campus's 600-seat theater, a new lighting system has been shipped in to illuminate the sequential narratives of the cast: the doomed convict, his victims and the ministering nun. Since the play requires a cast of 50, even the NDNU lacrosse team signed up to play prison guards. Simultaneously on campus is a show of art by Chicano prisoners in Texas, at the school's Wigand Gallery.

Of the film Dead Man Walking, Prejean has commented that Penn's Poncelet was a lot more frightening than the condemned men whom she met in real life. Prejean's gift as a writer and speaker—ably conveyed by Robbins' searing film—is that she has the same dread of prisons and convicts that any peaceful person would have, but she rose above it. The death penalty is a medieval hangover, which uses the typically medieval method of trying to cure torment with more torment. According to an interview she did with PBS, Sister Prejean fights against it "because there are some human rights so deep we can't negotiate them away."

Dead Man Walking previews Oct. 21 at 7:30pm, opens Oct. 22 at 7pm and plays Oct. 23­24, 28­30 and Nov. 5­6 at 8pm and Oct. 31 and Nov. 7 at 2pm at Notre Dame de Namur University, 1500 Ralston Ave., Belmont. Tickets for the gala are $200; other tickets are $15. (650.508.4177)

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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