The Kansas City Repertory Theatre delivers the strongest production of its season so far with Nathan Louis Jacksons When I Come to Die, a thoughtful and thought-provoking drama about death and the meaning of life.
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
The production offers a fine cast doing splendid work so splendid, in fact, that only after you leave the theater do you question some of Jacksons choices in his carefully crafted study of responsibility and redemption.
The production is directed by Kyle Hatley, the Reps associate artistic director, teaming up for the second time with Jackson, who is the Reps resident playwright. In 2010, Hatley directed Jacksons Broke-ology, a gentle family drama about a father and his two grown sons living in poverty in Kansas City, Kan.
Just as Broke-ology defied expectations by making the family dysfunction-free, here Jackson exhibits a similar sleight-of-hand by introducing familiar prison-drama conventions only to do something surprising with them.
Jacksons play reflects on the philosophical and spiritual questions that would naturally result from the extraordinary what if premise: What would the aftershocks be if a prisoner on death row survived a lethal injection?
The prisoner in question is Damon Robinson (Will Cobbs), who landed on death row for taking a life while burglarizing a house. At the plays outset, he has just returned from the death chamber, where he was given the drugs designed to kill him. We learn that his heart did indeed stop beating, but to everyones shock, he woke up. Nobody can explain what went wrong. And now Damon is back in his cell, not knowing why he survived or what it means.
Occupying the next cell is James Roach Teagle (Conan McCarty), who is next in line to be executed. Hes a nervous little guy, much too talkative in Damons view, and is feverishly working on his last words, writing and rewriting them in a notebook. Damons survival gives Roach a strand of hope: If it happened once, why not twice?
In an effort to make sense of his experience, Damon meets with Father Adrian Crouse (Kevin Cristaldi), the prison chaplain. At first they struggle to find a common language, but as the two have more meetings, they find a vocabulary that works. They find something else, too: mutual affection.
Meanwhile, Damon has become a cause célèbre outside the prison walls. He is visited by his younger sister, Chantel (Janae Nicole Mitchell), a single mother who explains that a journalist has told her a book deal might be a real possibility. What begins as a reconciliation falls apart after Damon becomes angry, unfairly accusing Chantel of coming to visit him only because she hopes to get money out of him.
Damons family, it seems, is always just out of reach. Beneath his bed are shoe boxes filled with letters, some that were returned unopened, some that were never sent. Sometimes he pulls one out and reads it aloud.
We know Damon and Roach are killers, but its tough not to feel sympathy for them. We are irresistibly drawn into the growing friendships between Damon and Father Adrian as well as Damon and Roach. Hovering over it all is an insistent question: Will Damon be rescheduled for execution? And if so, when?
Cobbs commands the stage even when hes still, even when hes silent. The performance seems to rumble up from somewhere deep inside. He can rage, he can intimidate, but he can just as easily disarm us with smarts and a sense of humor. Damon is a complicated character, but Cobbs delivers a performance memorable for its clarity.
As Roach, McCarty is equally nuanced. His nervous, ferretlike energy makes it seem that Roach is on the verge of bursting out of his skin at any moment. Or that if he just keeps talking, his execution day will never come. One of the strengths of the play is the contrast between Roachs manic desperation and Damons stolid resignation.
Cristaldi delivers a nicely realized performance as Father Adrian. The characters growing relationship with Damon is crystal clear. He never really talks about it, but we can see that the chaplains conversations with Damon are raising some spiritual questions without easy answers.
Mitchell, the only Kansas City-based actor in the show, brings a precise, understated performance to the stage as Chantel. In a way, Cristaldi and Mitchell meet a greater challenge. Their roles are less showy but crucial for the drama to work.
The design work is excellent. The set by Jack Magaw and Courtney ONeill places a row of cells upstage. Closer to the audience, the cells occupied by Damon and Roach are separated by an invisible wall, and moving platforms are used in the transitions as we move from the cell block to Father Adrians office and back again.
Jeffrey Cadys lighting, somber but subtle, perfectly complements the action, while Georgianna Londre Buchanans costumes are simple but effective.
The play concludes on a note that some viewers may find a bit too sentimental, which is surprising in a piece that generally avoids pushing our emotional buttons in an obvious way. One could argue that Jackson should have dug deeper and wrestled with bigger questions than those he ultimately settles for. But his attention to character detail is as good as it gets.
The end result is a riveting evening of theater. You wont get it out of your head.