- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2007

How can you teach someone to die at the moment he or she is most fully human? That is the exacting assignment handed to schoolteacher Grant Wiggins (KenYatta Rogers) in the noble drama “A Lesson Before Dying,” adapted for the stage by Romulus Linney from Ernest J. Gaines’ best-selling 1993 novel.

Director Timothy Douglas’ production seems as epic as classic Greek tragedy. Tony Cisek’s set is a cinder-block temple, with two towering walls almost converging at an angle and a massive, half-shrouded face peering out like a god on high from the crack between the two walls. Dan Covey’s lighting also has a cool, ritual gleam, with a small, high window looking out onto a blue sky providing the only glimpse of the outside world.

Set in Louisiana in 1948 but resonating in today’s headlines about the Jena 6 and Little Rock 9, “A Lesson Before Dying” centers on ingrained racism and two black men struggling to define what it is to be a man in a society that perceives them as less than human.

Jefferson (Shane Taylor) is a young boy from the country, arrested at the scene of a crime that left one white man and two black men dead. Jefferson is innocent of murder but guilty of poor choices. For this, he has been sentenced to die in the electric chair.

His lawyer, in a pitiful attempt to help him avoid the death penalty, likened Jefferson to a hog, and the boy wears this slur like a brand. Confinement has reduced him to a near bestial state — he eats like a farm animal and is practically mute. Mr. Taylor’s outstanding performance shows Jefferson pierced to the core by humiliation. He can’t bear to be touched or spoken to. It is a beautiful moment when he shyly opens himself up again during a visit by Grant’s girlfriend, Vivian (Rachel Leslie, radiating dignity and composure), who kisses him on the cheek as if delivering a benediction.

His godmother, Miss Emma (Beverly A. Cosham, solemn and impassioned) pleads with his former teacher, Grant, to help Jefferson die like a man. Grant is in his own prison of sorts, trapped in a job as a schoolteacher in a criminally underfunded school for black children.

Grant hates his life. He teaches Jefferson about dignity and acceptance the only way he knows how, by opening up the world to him, first giving him a radio so he can listen to music and then a journal and a pencil so he can write down his thoughts and memories.

Once given the power of words, Jefferson awakens to the fullness of being. In contrast to Jefferson’s phlegmatic countenance, Mr. Rogers’ indelible performance as Grant burns hot with bitterness and resentment. A hard-won lesson in compassion, however, cools his blood and warms his soul.

A teacher learning more from his student and the notion of becoming completely alive only right before death are hoary truisms, but “A Lesson” imparts the message of breaking down barriers and living in the moment with immediacy and clear-eyed force.

Such potential pedantry and Mr. Linney’s proclivity for preachy dialogue could sink a play, but a cadre of fine actors transcends any stiffness to make this “Lesson” a flesh-and-blood message you can take to heart.

***

WHAT: “A Lesson Before Dying,” adapted by Romulus Linney from Ernest J. Gaines’ novel

WHERE: Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 14.

TICKETS: $10 to $60

PHONE: 240/644-1100

WEB SITE: www.roundhousetheatre.org MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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