"A Lesson Before Dying" carries a burden of heavy themes: racism, capital punishment, jurisprudence, plus a fair heap of emotional detritus.
Romulus Linney's play, based on the award-winning 1993 novel by Ernest J. Gaines, is a dramatic workhorse that demands the audience think and feel. It is the best of theater that welcomes the best to bring the show to the Tampa Bay area.
"This play is loaded with issues, each one larger than the next," said Anna Brennen, director and founder of Stageworks Theatre Company.
In the Stageworks production, every scripted word remains intact. Brennen has seen to that because of the drama's inherent quality. Retaining the play's integrity is a tribute to the work itself and to Linney, who died in January of this year.
" 'Lesson' is written far too well for us to start diddling around with," said Chip Carter, who plays Sheriff Sam Guidry. "Anna stripped the script down to its metal frame and built it up from nuance to nuance to nuance until it became a living entity. It has been a wonder to watch her do that."
The story is set in a fictional African-American community called Bayonne, La., in the 1940s. Jefferson, a black man falsely accused of murder, has been sentenced to die in the electric chair. Characterized as a "hog" by whites, Jefferson resigns to be that hog.
His godmother calls on Grant, a recent college graduate who has reluctantly returned to Bayonne to teach. She asks Grant to show Jefferson how to die a man with grace and dignity, rather than as an animal brought to slaughter. One of many obstacles to these efforts is the officious, bigoted sheriff, who wants to keep Jefferson pinned to the trough. The tension he generates is vital to the play's core.
"Guidry represents all of the necessary and unnecessary evil in the world. He tries to run off Grant and does everything he can to subjugate him. I hate being that evil guy. He's probably the polar opposite of me. But that's part of it. The emotional fulcrum of the show is, 'Do you believe that all human beings have worth?' If you believe that, 'How are they redeemable?' " Carter said.
The play suggests a number of lessons for theatergoers to absorb and, perhaps, apply to life. It's an education worth far more than the price of a ticket.
"The play enables you to think about the fundamental principles of your life, to take measure. It's beautifully written by one of our most gifted and under-celebrated playwrights," Brennen said.
When: April 7-24; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Shimberg Playhouse, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa; call (813) 222-1001 or visit www.strazcenter.org