Eye on Theatre: Paean To A Player By John Simon

eHezi Archives 1 Comment

Simon_John When I Come to Die_Chris Chalk-PhotoCredit-Erin Baiano Sometimes in the theater a performance is so good that it renders everything else secondary. Such is the case of When I Come to Die, in which Chris Chalk (pictured right>>>)chalks up a resounding success.

Nathan Louis Jackson’s drama takes place on death row in Indiana State Prison. Two adjoining cells are on view. The inmate to our right is James “Roach” Teagle, a weird white man who keeps roaches, and who somehow, because he couldn’t stop them from screaming, killed two little girls. On our left is the protagonist, Damon Robinson, a black, who killed Wade, a “mean” young cop who had killed Damon’s beloved dog. One of Damon’s bullets went through a wall, killing also Wade’s baby.

When I Come to Die-LtoRChrisChalk-DavidPatrickKelly-PhCrErinBaiano<<<(LtoR) Chris Chalk and David Patrick Kelly.

Upstage is a slightly raised platform where handcuffed Damon gets to speak with Father Adrian Crouse, the prison’s Catholic chaplain, though Damon is an unbeliever. Their main topic at first is Damon’s having somehow survived the three lethal injections that never failed before, a survival the Church and the press call a miracle. Will the execution be rescheduled, or might there be a pardon? Damon has already spent ten years in jail.

When I Come to Die-L-R Chris Chalk and Amanda Mason Warren - PhCr Erin Baiano


(L-R): Chris Chalk and Amanda Mason Warren.>>>

The play also concerns six cardboard boxes of letters Damon has been writing his mother, brother, and sister, but which his father returned unopened. Damon rereads some by way of, as he puts it, reconnecting with his family. Downstage there is an area for prison visits, where Chantel, Damon’s younger sister, never before on a visit, finally comes for one. Though it begins well, it ends poorly.
And then there is all that talk about what to do with a few weeks’ time to live, and a touching scene in which Damon and Roach share an imaginary fishing trip. More I must not tell you. The dialogue throughout is pungent, but the reason  for Damon’s survival is never explained.

When I Come to Die-L-R Michael Balderrama and Chris Chalk-PhCr erin Baiano

<<<(L-R) Michael Balderrama and Chris Chalk.

All this, however, pales in comparison with Chalk’s virtuosic performance, particularly vividly observable because the Duke is a small, raked theater making for actor-viewer intimacy. And what we get from Chris Chalk is amazing.

Here is an actor whose every utterance, every movement, every facial expression, and even every silence speaks loud and clear and deeply moving. He has extraordinary vocal dynamics, flawlessly deployed between shouts at his saturnine guard and subdued comments in conversation. Shattering is his love for his letters, whether he is removing them with surgical care from their envelopes, or replacing them with sacramental reverence.  And how he clasps them to his heart, or how his whole being lights up when he reads aloud from one of them.

When I Come to Die-Chris Chalk and Neal Huff-PhCr Erin Baiano

<<<(L-R) Chris Chalk and Neil Huff.

A master of movements, and gestures, he can make them convey hope or despair, rebellion or resignation, with an eloquence most words would envy. But the greatest motion is from the eyeballs. They roll about or freeze, plead or fulminate, laugh or cry, needing neither sound nor tears to support their penetrating  message. If you want to experience acting at its indelible best, look no farther than this prison cell and its immediate vicinity.

The supporting cast, under Thomas Kail’s simple but telling direction, supplies the necessary. Neil Huff convinces as the sports-loving priest, who also loves his works and the inmates as his calling calls for, but who develops a special, mutual affection with his favorite prisoner.  David Patrick Kelly, as Roach, contributes much of the play’s humor—there is more of that than you might think—and Amanda Mason Warren is winning as sister Chantel.

There is detailedly authentic scenery by Robin Vest, precise costuming by Emily Rebholz, and condignly dramatic lighting by Betsy Adams. {Nice that the designers for this mostly male play are all women.) But, I repeat, it finally comes down to, and rises to transcend everything, in Chris Chalk’s performance. It would not surprise me if it companioned us to when we, too, come to die.

Photography by and courtesy of Erin Baiano.

The Duke on 42nd Street

229 West 42nd Street



John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com andBloomberg News. He reviews books for the  New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a   PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

Enhanced by Zemanta

eHeziEye on Theatre: Paean To A Player By John Simon

Comments 1

Leave a Reply

This comment will be displayed anonymously. Your name and email address will not be published.

Comments that are off topic will be removed. If you want a topic to be covered, email me at: ehezi@hush.com

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.