Feb 1, 2005

"Dead Man" Walks On

I've got to give props to Tim Robbins for this: He's released a play version of his penetrating script for Dead Man Walking to selected high schools and colleges, with an emphasis on Jesuit institutions. There's a production coming up at Nebraska's Creighton University, but what alerted me to this fine idea was an issue of "Men for Others," the alumni magazine for grads of Brophy College Prep, the Jesuit high school I attended in Phoenix, AZ. Brophy's young actors (with an assist, as usual, from the actresses of nearby Xavier, a girl's school) mounted their production in October of last year, and convened a Summit on Human Dignity in conjunction with the production. (Gosh, and all we did when I was at Brophy were musicals—and this guy was always beating me out of the lead roles.)

I'm particularly touched by this convergence of theatre and activism because Dead Man Walking happens to be my favorite Robbins film by leaps and bounds. I found Bob Roberts callow and earnest—as with Robbins' misbegotten Embedded, I could gladly forgive those faults if it were actually funny—and I found Cradle Will Rock mainly a guilty pleasure, being a sentimental lefty backstager (hard for me to resist on either count). Dead Man Walking, on the other hand, left me genuinely moved and shaken because it seemed infused with a sincere moral fervor—and not a fervor to get across one point of view but to explore the issues of sin, redemption, and forgiveness raised by capital punishment in more or less explicitly Christian terms (in the best, non-exclusionary sense of the word). That approach—evident not only in the script but in every performance, from Sean Penn's to Susan Sarandon's, to the contrasting portraits offered by Raymond Barry, Lee Ermey, and Celia Weston—struck me deeply, and I considered it a badge of the film's genuine empathic spirit that it got knocks from both the right and the left.

It seems only fitting that Jesuit schools should get first dibs at this meaty drama, since in my experience members of Society of Jesus (a cool name with a hint of the clandestine about it) are among the most socially engaged, least hidebound Catholics—or religious folk of any stripe—around. And such a ministry couldn't be more welcome in my conservative home state.

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