Saint Michael's College Magazine

Stage Right

Using theater to explore the ethics of capital punishment.

"You're never going to see an execution," said Sister Helen Prejean. The famously feisty death penalty foe and Catholic nun from Louisiana has seen several, as she reminded a campus audience last spring.

Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph, was on campus in April to talk to students, faculty and community members crowding McCarthy Recital Hall. Prejean recounted stumbling into a death-row ministry that changed her life and inspired Dead Man Walking, a 1995 movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn and a stage play of the same name by Tim Robbins. The play was this year's Main Stage production for Saint Michael's theater students.

"The theater, the arts are the way to bring us close" to such experiences, said Prejean, to "wake up" more hearts to Gospel imperatives about the poor and forgiveness. Her speech followed a visit to the theater across the hall to chat with students in rehearsal for Dead Man Walking. "You have to bring people there to help them to reflect," Prejean said. "That's why arts are so important, that's why theater's important, why books are important, why education is important."

"The arts are the way to wake up more hearts to Gospel imperatives about the poor and forgiveness."
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Sister Helen Prejean

Those who went to see the student production a few weeks later most likely left feeling unsettling new empathy, as Prejean would have hoped. Robbins' stage play of Dead Man Walking dramatically concludes with an onstage execution scene; powerful writing and stagecraft allow the audience to witness the horrific double-murder that led to the sentence, even as a lethal injection is being administered to the main character, Matt Poncelot, played by Zac Pesner '15. Evyn Whitely '15 played Sister Prejean, and Peter Harrigan '80, professor of fine arts, directed the performance.

The jagged emotion of these side-by-side staged deaths pays due attention to two sides of a wrenching social and moral issue that Saint Michael's faculty purposefully placed in the minds and consciences of the community for much of the spring semester. In addition to Prejean's visit and lecture, some of the 28 cast members visited a local women's prison for pre-show research and later to perform an abbreviated version of the show for inmates. In April, faculty experts on politics, sociology, philosophy and religion presented a panel discussion exploring the death penalty from the perspectives of their academic areas. They also led discussions in classes on the play and the death penalty, as did colleagues in other disciplines.

"Sometimes you go to the theater to escape the world. This was an experience to confront it."
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Peter Harrigan '80

Society of St. Edmund Superior General Rev. Michael Cronogue, one of several Edmundites who went to the show, had high praise for broad faculty and student efforts to educate and engage on this issue all semester. "I thought it highlighted the Catholic sense that all life is sacred and that everybody has dignity," he said. "I credit Peter [Harrigan] and the cast for their outreach. It truly was a celebration of life and hope."

Whiteley '15, who played Prejean, said, "I never thought I would play a character that I would meet!" The prospect made her both very excited and very nervous on the day Prejean came to visit. "I thought maybe she wouldn't be what I expected," recalls Whiteley. However, Prejean strode into rehearsal with Harrigan, coming right down to the stage where all the students were and quickly put the cast at ease with her joking and warmth, Whiteley says.

"In a sense, she was what I expected from seeing the movie but so much more, much more spunky and confident," Whiteley says. "She's a real powerhouse - just walks into a room and lights it up." She says Prejean "looked right into each cast members' eyes and said something about that actor's character to help them better understand who the person was." Prejean told Whiteley how she was far less self-assured in the early days of her ministry. The student actress learned how to sit during some scenes by watching Prejean during the visit. Prejean told her, "You're never comfortable when you’re sitting with a prisoner." In his portrayal, Pesner also used details from Prejean about the two prisoners upon whom his composite character was based.

Harrigan says he thought students "really brought a lot of sensitivity and maturity to the subject matter," adding, "In light of the bombings [at the Boston Marathon] that happened right around the time of the show, hearing words like 'violence’ and 'victim's families' and 'grief' had a different kind of resonance."

For Harrigan and some others, he says, the show drove home "the need to create more interest in and acceptance for people who are incarcerated, particularly those on death row. It was a reminder of our common humanity, even when people’s behavior is problematic. Sometimes you go to the theater to escape from the world, but this was an experience to look at it, confront it."

Near the end of her visit, Prejean noted how Maryland had recently become the sixth state in six years to end the death penalty. "Education - That's the way democracy works, the way social movements work. Educate the people and the people make the change," she said. "That's why the students who go here to Saint Michael's are so lucky. You got a chance to learn about things and be educated. You don't go for the surface stuff, the political rhetoric about stuff. You go deeper."

"The Gospel of Jesus is an adventure," she said, "and it's really hard to live it - I mean the real Gospel. And I've grown into it. We all grow into it."

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