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There are few real surprises in Romulus Linney’s stage adaptation of the Ernest J. Gaines novel A Lesson Before Dying, but they’re not necessary in a story that shocks and dismays simply by playing out exactly as the viewer would expect. At the play’s opening, the young Jefferson (Gabriel Johnson) is already on death row, but fear and institutionalized inequities in the Jim Crow South keep anyone from challenging the verdict; even an explicit did-he-do-it conversation in the second act feels like no more than a mournful intellectual exercise. In this world, it’s accepted as fact that a black man standing close by when a white man is murdered is as good as dead. When his own public defender uses the gangly metaphor of a hog to be slaughtered as a plea for clemency, Jefferson seizes on that one word — hog — and turns it into a self-fulfilling prophecy, shutting down and merely waiting for the day he’ll be dragged to the electric chair.

His guardian, Miss Emma (Barbara Jacobs-Smith), wisely realizes the only thing Jefferson can now control is how he chooses to face his fate, and she recruits the boy’s former teacher, Grant Wiggins (Harold Hogan), to instill a manly sense of dignity in the condemned. Already struggling with his vocation at a rural plantation school and sustaining a cautious relationship with another teacher, the still-married Vivian Baptiste (Angela King), Grant thinks only of leaving the doldrums of his surroundings to accomplish better and more important things elsewhere. Nobody should be surprised that Grant needs to learn a lesson as much as Jefferson does, but the way it plays out in this Detroit Repertory Theatre production, directed by Barbara Busby, peels back futility to reveal the power of pride in the face of oppression.

Harry Wetzel’s utilitarian set is largely unadorned, magnifying the sense of how little Grant finds special in this place as he drifts from the courthouse to his classroom to the restaurant where he meets with Vivian. Hogan’s performance is a work of understatement; his Grant internalizes the struggle between the obligation to Emma and his community and the calling that draws him to escape the racism and small-town reach that keeps him down. On the other side of the coin, Johnson’s turn as Jefferson at first evokes the single-minded echo of hog; however, his subtle adoption of a few meaningful vestiges of civilization softens and deepens the character believably. In an exceptionally memorable scene, after bad-mouthing his teacher’s girlfriend, Jefferson later comes face-to-face with her — the cloudburst of simple kindness in King and Johnson’s interaction is masterfully reflected in lighting and costume choices by Thomas Schraeder and Judy Dery, respectively; after so much glumness, Vivian’s bright visage is redemptive as a songbird.

The only white people in the world of the play are Jefferson’s jailers, who provide additional context. As the Napoleonic sheriff, Peter Knox brandishes his race as much as he does his badge, a vile demonstration of a person who fundamentally believes black people are lesser than him and still goes the extra mile to belittle them further. Anyone could look benevolent compared with him, but tender-faced deputy Paul (Hank Bennett) does more than what is just; Bennett’s mute presence through deeply personal scenes has a gentle feeling of apology, emphasizing how even those white people that disagree with the system are helpless to change it.

This stirring two-hour play does falter a bit toward the end; it’s difficult to imagine any conclusion that could fully live up to such a powerful and dire premise, and the increasing attention to Grant’s lack of spirituality — as elucidated by prickly Reverend Moses Ambrose (Doug McCray) — feels like an unnecessary layer in the script. Yet before and after sound designer Burr Huntington interjects his woefully final knell, the characters around Jefferson are both teaching and learning lessons about what unexpected, meaningful forms success can take. In all, this production of A Lesson Before Dying is equally sad and satisfying, a portrait of people overcoming the worst as they discover what it means to be their best.


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