By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A Lesson Before Dying is an important book with an important message. But at Ensemble Theatre, it is every bit as literary on the stage as it is on the page, and that makes for static theater.
Ernest Gaines' novel, set in 1948 Louisiana, is about an innocent man facing the electric chair and the teacher who is recruited to help him face his death like a man - because it's the only way poor blacks can stand up to the white power structure.
There may be half a century and hundreds of miles between Bayonne and Cincinnati, but headlines about innocent men being railroaded through court are as fresh as tomorrow and death with dignity is a subject that always resonates powerfully.
As adapted by Romulus Linney, Lesson talks and talks and talks then does some preaching then drives its points home with a sledgehammer - over and over. No matter how much we sympathize with its issues, what's missing is the vital piece - dramatic momentum.
It doesn't help that, as directed by D. Lynn Meyers, the production buckles under the weight of its social conscience.
Demond Robertson, considerably better than he was earlier this season in Blue/Orange, returns to ETC as Grant Wiggins, the teacher who wishes he were anywhere else but the rural shack of a school where he can't get through to the students and chafes at the respect that must be paid the racist whites who control the parish.
Robertson is better on the externals than the internals. He needs to let us see more of Grant's building self-awareness - he's a prisoner, too, although he has the ability to free himself - to bring the big pay-off at the end.
Malik El-Amin is Jefferson, the barely educated innocent found guilty. After being dismissed at his trial as more animal than human, Jefferson is acting like one as Lesson begins.
Meyers brings El-Amin along on his journey to manhood much too quickly - there's never a question that he's going to do the right thing and that diffuses the show's climax.
Their meetings are in a storeroom of the courthouse, strewn with wooden crates and lit with a single bare light bulb and a window to the world Jefferson will never enter again.
As in Praying for Rain a few seasons back, scenic designer Brian Mehring plays with slides and multimedia effects, again not successfully. The images - historic photos, sun-dappled trees, floating clouds - fill the panel behind the stage, with a "window" cut high into the center and left empty. It's merely odd when the "window" leaves a big chunk of the flashing photos cut out.
Deborah Brock-Blanks, who is always at her best harnessing rage and misery, is Jefferson's aunt; Iriemimen Oniha is Grant's girlfriend, who isn't as fleshed out as she needs to be.
It's Drew Fracher in the small supporting role of the all-seeing and understanding deputy who demonstrates how to create a character's inner-life.
Artistic director Meyers used opening night top announce that the regional premiere of Off-Broadway hit The Exonerated, monologues based on interviews with former death row inmates, will open Ensemble's 2004-05 season.
A Lesson Before Dying, through Feb. 15, Ensemble Theatre, 421-3555.
'Lesson' is a rather dull sermon
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