Two plays raise questions about how we view the condemned | Theater | Indy Week

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Two plays raise questions about how we view the condemned

In the mercy seat



Raleigh Ensemble Players
Through Oct. 27

Coyote on a Fence

UNC DDA Mainstage
Closed Oct. 16

Teenage wasteland: Eric Harris (Ryan Brock) and Dylan Klebold (Jesse Gephart) in columbinus - PHOTO COURTESY OF RALEIGH ENSEMBLE PLAYERS

Though only one of the two plays touches directly upon it, I realized something about the death penalty last weekend, after seeing Raleigh Ensemble Players' production of columbinus and UNC's DDA Mainstage's rendition of Coyote on a Fence.

If you want to examine society's true feelings about the issue—or, possibly, just your own—you don't search through the realms of the exonerated, the mentally disabled or model jailhouse converts. In particular, you don't enter the labyrinth called extenuating circumstances.

It's a lot more useful to study your responses—or your culture's—to the ones who are actually as guilty as hell instead. The absolutely unrepentant: those, in short, whom it's easiest to conclude are most deserving of extermination. Among recent death-row narratives, Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking has come closer than most to using an unsympathetic character as the center of its inquiry. The choice of a killer and rapist who was poor, white, ignorant and racist as the story's subject gave that work exponentially more impact on the current debate than dozens of its equally well-meant counterparts. If so, something important can be learned from it—something I think we see both in Coyote and columbinus.

I have written publicly against the death penalty. I have also experienced the frustration opponents feel at the lack of traction a myriad of arguments and appeals have attained thus far. I have also gotten the distinct impression that, even though we opponents believe we strike at the heart of the matter in works like The Exonerated and The Death of Innocents, we are actually seen instead, by its proponents and the undecided, as focusing too much on the edges of the issue.

I'm afraid that, far too easily, works like The Exonerated and Innocents are heard as asking, "Are you against capital punishment for those not guilty?" instead of "Are you against capital punishment?" Prejean's Innocents­—and even Dead Man Walking—can be read as asking if we shouldn't execute the mentally handicapped, adult survivors of child abuse or the economically and educationally disadvantaged, instead of the central question itself: "Should we not execute?"

Too often, our arguments are read by others as a dodge into a thicket composed of exceptions and uniquely mitigating factors; addressing them, beyond a point, at the expense of the central issue itself. If this is so, it's because, at least in part, too few of our artists have had the courage to focus instead on the literally unpardonable; those termed, in another public discussion, the worst of the worst.

Until we do, the conversation on death by the state is not likely to go much further than it has.

The major contribution playwrights Bruce Graham (Coyote) and Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli (columbinus)—and directors Kenneth Strong and C. Glen Matthews, respectively—make is this: They force us to deal with characters who are not remotely interested in our ideas of atonement or forgiveness. At the best, they're only sympathetic in small part.

In Coyote, Reyburn's rough-hewn eagerness to please cell partner John Brennan, a teacher figure who edits a death row newspaper, is kept as integral to his personality as his membership in the Aryan Nation—and his conviction that God personally told him to torch an African-American church in order to "show them the way home."

In columbinus, actor Ryan Brock memorably conveys the degree to which Eric Harris feels completely out of control of his anger, while remaining unable to defend himself from predators at school. Dylan Klebold's aloofness, as seen by actor Jesse Gephart, imperfectly masks an intelligence bewildered by the high school—and American—culture in which he finds himself.

But this way of approaching the pairs would ultimately be for nothing if the playwrights didn't subsequently stage their rabid psychopathology as well. In reenacting the final videotaped message Harris and Klebold left behind, one half-hour before their assault on Columbine, the two are exulting over the carnage they are about to commit. Klebold openly gloats that they are going to be "like gods."

These are the worst of our possibilities. And since they are presented without the audience being diverted by side issues, the question of true mercy can, finally, be considered. We use the term frequently when we talk about the death penalty. But the ways we cite it make me wonder how many of us have ever really examined the implications of the word, the definition of which involves compassion or forbearance shown toward an offender or enemy. Forbearance is patient endurance; self-control; tolerance and restraint in the face of provocation.

That's it then. Speaking strictly, mercy isn't for the innocent. It's for the guilty. Mercy is what you get when you don't get what you deserve. At its core is not the presumption of blamelessness, but its opposite instead. It's the imposition of anything but the harshest penalty when that penalty is believed appropriate.

We don't do mercy very well in this culture. The doctrine many of the conservative Christians who support capital punishment embrace stresses that all souls are damned unless saved by the mercy of God. Yet they fail to note the obvious parallels in the plight of the condemned. Meanwhile, how many death penalty opponents want the condemned to reflect our beliefs concerning contrition, remorse and redemption to justify our interest?

Both stances are, ultimately, beside the point. Mercy is not conditional. It's not about what someone does, seems to do, or promises to do after their fall. Instead, it focuses entirely on us: what we do, as a culture, in our response to them: what limits we place on our anger and retribution when those who have wronged us are entirely at our mercy.

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