Dead Man Walking

An Emotionally Complicated Tale of Self Discovery, A Stunning Work by Jake Heggi and Terrance McNally

Scene, a Louisiana penitentiary: Glistening steel bars climb to the ceiling, shimmering in the back light, against the sterile white of the prison walls.

As the warden leads Sister Helen past the steel cages of this human zoo – where she has come to visit the condemned murderer Joseph de Rocher – a mob of frenzied prisoners in orange garb claw out through the bars, shouting, wailing, tearing at her, just out of reach. It is a Dies Ire, the lamentations of souls in torment, of broken lives in a world that has failed. She struggles forward, and we wonder what possible good can come from trying to give comfort, much less love, in such a place.

In the realm of monumental emotion that we call opera, it is still rare enough to be asked to care, as we are in Dead Man Walking, which opened Sept. 26 at Theater an der Wien and continues through Oct. 10. Perhaps it is the gap of culture, or era, between us and a La Traviata or a Don Giovanni. Perhaps it is that we have been spoiled by the intimacy of film, to expect to be drawn into the private world of the action in a fashion that is hard to accomplish in quite the same way on stage.

At the opera – however glorious the music – one is rarely moved to tears.

de Roche prepares for his lethal injection in the final scenes | Photo: Theater an der Wien

Still, it happened at the premiere of this remarkable work, that is sure to become a staple in the canon of contemporary opera. With Jake Heggi’s stunning score and a fine libretto by the distinguished American playwright Terrance McNally (Master Class), a cast of dramatic actors who can also sing realised this emotionally complicated tale of self discovery and forgiveness, dissolving the distance between audience and story and achieving something very close to redemption.

From a carpet of arpeggios in the strings, glistening with the brighter threads of flute and clarinet, the music establishes a mood of thoughtfulness; it is gentle and reflective, with passing suggestions of gospel, which prepares us for the telling of a human story in this inhuman setting.

From a children’s classroom and the friendship with her fellow nun, portrayed in luxurious duet with Roberta Alexander as Sister Rose, Sister Ellen (Kristine Jepson) reads a letter from Joe – a man condemned to die for killing two young lovers on a remote country road – that triggers her decision to visit him, hoping somehow to make a difference in his final days.

Based on a memoir of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, and made famous by a Tim Robbins film with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, Dead Man Walking is a difficult story to stage. The action is largely internal, confined, told through reflection while driving a car, or in conversations trapped seated in a hearing room, that leaves little room for natural motion. However a highly imaginative set of rotating cubes and spaces by Nicolaus Lehnhoff, transformed through shifting tones of light largely overcome these limits, and allow us to travel in both time and understanding.

Jepson is very well cast as Sister Helen, whose cropped hair and stocky frame, along with her barn-sized voice, help make the provincial, almost naive good intensions of her well-defined character fully believable. Of the constantly fine performances, Peter Lobart as the prison warden was surprisingly sympathetic as the administrator of Death Row. (“I’ll never get used to this,” he tells Sister Helen). However most extraordinary was Frederica von State as Mrs. De Rocher, the mother of the condemned man, who conveys not only the anguish of her pending loss, but the struggle to make sense of her own love for a son who, she finally must accept, is also a murderer. Her pleas to Sister Helen for help are heart rending, as she struggles with confusion and doubt, humiliation and loyalty.

The challenge of this story is whether we can believe in the possibility of reconciliation. Dead Man Walking asks  the fundamental question of Christian ethics, of whether it is possible to condemn the sin and love the sinner.

The answer is yes.

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