A cast of more than 20 students will perform the script from the movie, complete with a fake, smoldering cigarette and accompanying multimedia presentation.
Kevin Burgun, English teacher and director of the production, said the script “is a rough draft version.” Robbins released the script prior to public sale to allow for input and suggestions on how to adapt it for the stage. Burgun and company are taking plenty of notes during practice, noting scenes that are too long or need more information. “From the beginning,” Burgun said, “I encouraged the actors to create their own characters.”
Maritza Webb, a senior who’ll pursue an acting degree after graduation, plays the role of Sister Helen Prejean. Webb had the opportunity to meet Prejean at the School of the Americas protest last year and talk with her about the screenplay. Because of the encouragement she received from Burgun, Webb decided not to try and mimic Prejean’s voice or personality. Instead, Webb presents the internal struggle Prejean endured while becoming an advocate for the death row inmate Matthew Poncelet, as played by sophomore Austin Morris.
Morris said that the hardest part of playing Poncelet is getting into his character: “It’s tough to get into the mindset of a person who is going to die in less than 100 hours.”
The plot line of Dead Man Walking follows the true experience of Sister Helen Prejean in Louisiana and her journey from indifference to compassion. Webb and company capture the tensions that arose within Prejean’s church community, neighborhood and prison community as she develops a relationship with convicted murderer Poncelet. One conflict in particular, between Prejean and prison chaplain Farley, confronts the audience with just one of the play’s many ethical battles. In a scene where Farley talks with Prejean about the importance of saving Poncelet’s soul, he says, “This is a high stakes job,” questioning Prejean’s ability as a woman and new counselor to get a confession and hold communion with Poncelet. “If you fail,” Farley continued, “this boy’s life is damned.”
“What I love about the theater is the fact that you can tell stories,” Webb said.
These stories can be used to challenge people’s beliefs about the death penalty, Burgun added. The play’s tragic nature offers “good reasons and support exists for both sides of the death penalty argument,” Burgun said. “It is my hope that people will leave the theater disturbed and conflicted.”