Brebeuf to perform controversial play A stage production of Tim Robbins’ screenplay Dead Man Walking, the story of Sister Helen Prejean and her experience as a death row counselor, will be presented this weekend at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. Robbins released the script from the 1995 movie, by the same title and starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, only to Jesuit high schools, colleges and universities. Brebeuf will be the first high school to present the play. Sister Prejean, played by Maritza Webb, talks with Matt Poncelet, played by Ausitn Morris, hours before his scheduled execution in ‘Dead Man Walking,’ the screenplay now adapted for the stage. 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.”
What: Dead Man Walking
Where: Brebeuf Jesuit Prepatory School at 2801 W. 86th St. (multipurpose room)
When: Oct. 28-Oct. 31, Thursday-Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., followed by a discussion time
How much: $8 for adults and $5 for students and children. All tickets are general admission and available at the door.