Theater Review: Count Dispels the Anesthetic of Distance from Death Row | Arts

Theater Review: Count Dispels the Anesthetic of Distance from Death Row


  • photo by Kristen Chavez
Closed Aug. 27
Kenan Theatre, Chapel Hill

Distance is a powerful anesthetic. The farther we live from neighborhoods blighted by the ammoniac stench of a commercial hog farm’s waste lagoons, for example, the less likely we are to feel their pain. If we never see the bodies crippled by black lung, which is on the rise again among Appalachian coal miners, or the stolen adolescence of foreign textile workers, it’s easier for us to deny their reality.

Count, the profoundly disquieting new docudrama by Lynden Harris, makes it clear that the same is true of capital punishment, particularly the structures that surround and support it. A number of works have looked at how the condemned die in the United States, but instead, Harris conspicuously focuses on how they live during the fifteen years, on average, they spend on death row before their sentences are carried out.

In 105 intermission-less minutes, Count takes us through a strictly regimented day on death row. Given the grinding sameness of all days there, it seems merely ironic at first when the oldest inmate, the erudite Long Beach (Brian D. Coats), sardonically paraphrases the Passover question, “Why is today different from all other days?” in the show’s opening seconds. Ultimately, though, we learn the date is December 31, the last day a sitting governor could commute a prisoner’s sentence to life without parole. But in a place where hope is the most tightly controlled substance, the fact is treated with disdain or disregard.

This co-production by the arts-activism group Hidden Voices and PlayMakers Repertory Company confronts various limitations in its efforts to place us in the cellblock, and not all of them were unavoidable. A black box or site-specific theater would have been far more appropriate for this psychological drama than the spacious, overtly theatrical Kenan Theatre. McKay Coble’s next-to-nonexistent set design did not convey the repressive, constrictive environment in Harris’s script.

There is a compressed fire-hose quality to the discourse at times—the sense that the playwright had to cover years of insights and revelations in just over an hour and a half. The closest this wordy encounter ever comes to capturing the monotony of death row comes when the offstage corrections officer announces weekly visitation on the intercom. When no one comes to visit, the inmates sit in silence.

Kathryn Hunter-Williams’s direction nurtured impressive ensemble work. Edward O’Blenis explored the sudden sharp edges of the soulful, depressive Richmond. Regional veteran Gil Faison shone, in his PlayMakers debut, as the sarcastic Brownsville. Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s vivid prisoner, Maine, recalled a boot-camp childhood with a deranged survivalist, and Chris Berry’s Kansas City recounted a neighborhood where “If you was sensitive, you was something to eat.” Richard McDonald’s Whitehouse, the most recent arrival, notes, “You can’t be rehabilitated if you ain’t never been habilitated in the first place.”

Still, Harris’s moving script ultimately conveys the cage of death row more palpably than this production does.

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