By Barri Bronston
As director Chase Waites was preparing to begin rehearsals for Jesuit High School’s production of “Dead Man Walking,” he wondered how he might best inspire his troupe of teen actors to become – really become – their characters.
Among the parts in the play were prison guards and lawyers, reporters and nuns, a priest, the governor, a nurse. There were the family members of convicted murderer Matt Poncelet as well as the two teenagers Poncelet was accused of raping and killing.
There was Poncelet, of course, and Sister Helen Prejean, the Louisiana nun, teacher and activist whose best-selling book Dead Man Walking became a 1996 Oscar-winning movie that explores the issue of capital punishment.
“Every role, from the prison guard with no lines to sister Helen, is crucial to everything in the play,” Waites said before a recent rehearsal. “And the kids really need a sense of reality to put in their own thinking and their own character development.”
So he took them to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where they visited the death house, saw how prisoners work and live and even met a convicted murderer. They went to Angola’s museum, where they saw confiscated inmate weapons, an old electric chair and news clippings about famous prison escapes and executions.
The director of such past Jesuit productions as “The Crucible,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Waites is known for his strong emphasis on character development. But “Dead Man Walking” – which will be staged this weekend and next at the Jesuit High School Auditorium – took his commitment to an even higher level.
The script was a gift, and Waites doesn’t want to disappoint the man who bestowed it. That man is actor Tim Robbins, who directed the movie and earlier this year, as part of his Dead Man Walking Theatre Project, invited the nation’s 80 Jesuit schools and universities to perform a draft version of his stage adaptation.
As of now, Jesuit is one of 30 schools doing the production and among the first to bring it to the stage. Audience members on Sunday will include Prejean, who encouraged Robbins to write the play.
As part of an agreement with Robbins, participating schools promised not to produce the play for commercial gain; they also pledged to involve another academic discipline in a study project on capital punishment. And they will provide feedback to Robbins – what worked or didn’t work – for his use in writing the final version of the play, which could end up on Broadway.
Through the project, Robbins encourages students to reflect on what he considers to be one of the key moral issues of the day: capital punishment. He doesn’t insist that they espouse his own anti-death penalty views, preferring to let them reach their own conclusions through careful thought and discussion.
“Does the death penalty truly help murder victims heal?” he wrote in his letter to the schools. “Who benefits from the death penalty? What do we all fell about capital punishment? Can it be applied fairly? Raising questions promoting public discourse is what theater is all about, and that’s why I’ve written the play.”
The play, like the book and the movie, is based on a true story that centers on the relationship between Poncelet, a death row inmate, and the nun, Sister Helen, who becomes his spiritual adviser and friend while he awaits execution. The movie, filmed in Louisiana, earned a best actress Oscar for Susan Sarandon (as Prejean), a directing nomination for Robbins and a best actor nomination for Sean Penn (as Poncelet).
“I’m always interested in doing new work, so when we got the letter, I immediately jumped on it,” Waites said. “The script has many roles, and it was a great opportunity to get a lot of kids involved.”
More than 80 students from Jesuit and several Catholic girls’ schools showed up for auditions, with just over half of them cast in the play. Among them were Nick Simoneaux, a Jesuit senior, and Corey Milliet, a senior at Mount Carmel Academy. They play Poncelet and Prejean, and along with the rest of the cast, read the book and watched the movie to prepare for their parts.
“I watched the movie a million times, trying to get a sense of who Sister Helen is, how she speaks, how she holds her hands,” said Milliet, who also studies musical theater at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts/Riverfront.
Simoneaux said that while he is thrilled to be playing one of the two principle characters, it has been a challenge taking on the persona of a convicted killer preparing for execution.
“Trying to connect with a guy who did all those horrible things, trying to relate to the realness of the person has been really difficult,” he said. “He is a real person, and you have to find how you can make that real person come out to the audience.”
Both actors said the field trip to Angola helped give them a sense of what the prison experience is like – especially for those awaiting execution or serving life sentences.
“An inmate spoke about his life in prison and how he felt about living there for the rest of his life,” Simoneaux said. “It was odd to imagine that the confident, calm and eloquent man speaking to us had killed someone.
“I got to see the execution chamber with my own eyes. I had always imagined it as almost separate from reality – almost out of this world - and actually being inside of it helped me feel the gravity of the subject.”
Milliet left Angola with similar impressions. “The experience helped me get a grasp on what things would be going through Sister Helen’s mind,” she said. “It helped me get a better understanding of what Matt Poncelet was going through.
“This was a tough situation for both of them, because someone she never expected to care for and become someone she didn’t want to give up on. He had become a part of her and would never fully leave her.”
Waites described the prison visit as both powerful and moving and said it helped humanize the issue of capital punishment, regardless of students’ views.
“After touring the facility and talking with some of the inmates, it’s impossible not to understand the compassion that Sister Helen feels for the people she helps at the prison,” he said.
“Putting a face on the concepts we’ve studied and talked about, the things we are portraying on the stage, has really brought a sense of reality to the actors in the production.”