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There are many things we need to consider, but do our best to avoid. High on the list of difficult moral topics is execution — the legal murder of a citizen convicted of crime so heinous that perpetual captivity seems inadequate punishment. Is the Death Penalty wrong, degrading to our shared humanity, or is it society’s last defense against, for instance, the amoral person who could cover Abhijit Mahato’s beaming face with a pillow and shoot him to death, leaving his body lying like trash in his plundered apartment? It is far easier to oscillate between the extreme poles of the argument, than to consider it in the round — but playwright and actor Mike Wiley is the man to coax us into a fuller conversation.
Wiley, who lives in Apex, NC, holds an MFA degree in acting from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Witness to an Execution began its journey to the stage as a class project while he was a graduate student. His one-man production runs through April 27th in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre of the UNC Center for Dramatic Art, as the final installment in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s PRC² season of one-person shows tackling difficult contemporary issues. It also wraps up UNC-Chapel Hill’s yearlong study series on the Death Penalty.
Mike Wiley’s beautifully crafted multi-character script focuses on the people around the victim and the perpetrator, and examines the effects that execution has on them. The story’s lead character is the Warden, for whom this will be the final execution, closing his career at the prison; but Wiley plays all his various characters with almost equal credibility. Under Kathryn Hunter-Williams’ skillful direction, he makes the transition from one to the next using patterns of stage movement, gesture, posture, pantomime, and vocal inflections. We are aided in understanding who is who by the clever use of three video panels on the back wall that supply identifying and supplementary visual information, by the rest of Charles McClennahan’s severely functional set design, and by Eric Ketchum’s active lighting.
But the show is truly Wiley’s. Because the script is so good, I think he’d be very nearly as moving if he were standing in a bare room reading from the page, as he is acting all the parts. The writing is studded with memorable lines. There’s a little chat about a man not worrying about the stray dog he’s found, because it is in a no-kill shelter (not far from the Death House in “the Unit.”) There’s the DA, who can’t remember where he left his car, but “murder trials come back to me like the smell of rain.” When the warden described an earlier execution that went wrong, he says, “you’ll never hear another sound like a woman screaming for her child who’s being executed.”
The language is powerful, but how much more powerful it is to see Wiley become the mother of the condemned man, sprinkling her laundry, gliding her iron as she waits for the last phone call; or the prison cook, jiving in the kitchen, preparing the last meal; or the Death Row angel bringing a comfort no one else will offer; or the bereaved father contrasting his newborn’s skin to that of his murdered son lying in the morgue; or the prison chaplain; or the guard and his children; or the DA, cancelling his appointments and reviewing all the evidence one more time.
Watching each scene is like closing your hand on broken glass; but Wiley’s demeanor is so simple, non-confrontational, that we let all these characters and their woes into our hearts. In the fierce light that beats upon the scaffold, we can see that there are no smooth solutions to the conundrum. As the Warden says in closing, of execution and its effects, “it is like being in a car wreck that goes on forever.”
Note: Each 70-minute performance is followed by a 45-minute panel and audience discussion in the theater. You can see video of some of Wiley’s previous performances at http://www.youtube.com/user/MikeWiley [inactive 8/08].
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Witness to an Execution Thursday-Saturday, April 24-26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 27, at 2 and 8 p.m. in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $24-$32. 919/962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/. Audio (Sound Portraits Radio Documentary “Witness to an Execution”): http://www.soundportraits.org/on-air/witness_to_an_execution/ [inactive 8/08]. Mike Wiley: http://www.mikewileyproductions.com/ (his web site) and http://www.playmakersrep.org/ (PlayMakers Repertory Company).
Kathryn Hunter-Williams: http://www.playmakersrep.org/ (PlayMakers Repertory Company). Michél Marrano: http://marranosounddesign.com/Home.html (her web site) and http://www.playmakersrep.org/ (PlayMakers Repertory Company). Carolina Performing Arts’ “Criminal/Justice: The Death Penalty Examined”Series: http://www.unc.edu/news/archives/aug07/deathpenalty083007.html.