First Quinnipiac Theater took on Ireland. Now they’ve taken on Louisiana, the setting for their latest production “Dead Man Walking.”
Quinnipiac University Theater for Community will present the stage version of the film “Dead Man Walking” March 30 through April 9 at Quinnipiac University’s black box theater and April 13 to 15 at the Long Wharf Theatre, Stage II, in New Haven.
As part of a rigorous rehearsal process, the play’s director Dr. Crystal Brian, accompanied students to the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana to do research over spring break.
“For the actors in the play, a trip to Angola means inhabiting – albeit briefly – the landscape of Tim Robbins’ play,” Brian said. “More importantly, meeting some of the inmates of the prison, as well as the men and women who work there, will hopefully bring us closer to understanding the human realities involved in one of the most profound moral and philosophical issues dividing our country.”
The issue Brian is referring to is the death penalty and is the main focus of the play. “Dead Man Walking” deals with the real-life experiences of Sister Helen Prejean who acted as a spiritual adviser for a death row inmate convicted of killing two teenage girls.
In addition to visiting the Angola state penitentiary, the students also made a trip to the Death Penalty Discourse Center, where Sister Helen works. For many of the students, this made quite an impact.
“We actually spoke to Sister Helen,” said Casey Manning, 20, who will play death row inmate Matthew Poncelet. “She spoke to us about her experiences. That was very powerful, getting a first-hand account.”
Sister Helen also gave the students tips on their performance, telling Manning to be truthful. “That was a theater generality,” Manning said. “But coming from her it was cool.”
The students were able to meet the real life counterparts of the people in the book and play, and visited the places where the events of “Dead Man Walking” took place. This gave many of the students a much better understanding of the world of the play.
“I actually got to stand in the room where the witnesses would watch the execution,” said Kevin Fitzpatrick, 19, who plays the father of a victim. “It was a very emotional experience for me to feel the amount of pain in the room.”
Before their trip, the students spent a lot of time talking about the death penalty, clipping articles from the newspaper, and browsing the web in order to research and explore the play and its background.
Even with all this preparation, Manning found it difficult to fully understand the killer he will portray. Since the trip, he feels much more prepared. “I’ve been able to get into his head and become the character a little more because of the experiences I had,” he said.
And this is exactly what Brian had in mind.
“The reality of capital punishment seemed not quite real to many of us as we began working on the play,” Brian said. “But at Angola prison we were brought into the lethal injection chamber and stood next to the gurney where death row inmates have died. As we stood in that room I think the death penalty seemed much less abstract to all of us. I believe the power of theater is its ability to take an abstract and make it real.”
Tickets for “Dead Man Walking” are $10 for adults and $5 for students and seniors. Tickets are currently for sale in the Student Center and can also be purchased at the door. For show times and to reserve tickets, call (203) 582-3500.