Life & Death 

Regional premieres open at Circuit and Theatre Memphis.

Director Stephen Hancock is to be admired for the extraordinary work he's produced in Memphis. In recent years, the U of M professor has staged several award-winning productions, but he's also helmed some real stinkers. Hancock's production of A Lesson Before Dying, on stage at Circuit Playhouse, falls squarely into the second category and may represent this notable talent's least memorable endeavor to date.

Although the staging is awkward, it's difficult to blame all of Lesson's failures on Hancock. Romulus Linney's underwritten adaptation of Ernest Gaines' celebrated novel doesn't help. Neither does the fact that some of the actors haven't completely learned their lines or their cues or how to deal with their costumes.

A Lesson Before Dying tells the unflinchingly bleak story of Jefferson, a young black man condemned to die for a murder he didn't commit in a small racist town in Louisiana. Jefferson's godmother arranges for the town's minister and schoolteacher to visit the prisoner to save his soul and to help him discover what it means to be a man. Only Grant Wiggins, the cowardly teacher, is effective in helping Jefferson discover his humanity and worth.

Linney's interpretation of Gaines' characters is paper-thin in nearly every case, and his rendering of the relationship between an agnostic teacher struggling to find courage and an unlearned but cocksure minister is notably undercooked. Even the town's racist sheriff (Sam Weakley) has been emasculated by the playwright and converted into a clownish politician, more to be pitied than despised.

True to the novel's color scheme, A Lesson Before Dying is rendered in shades of black, gray, and brown, but fidelity is about the only thing Jimmy Humphries' set has going for it. The large reproductions of photographs from the civil rights era that are used as a backdrop have more life in them than most of the characters on stage and distract from the action. There are several revelatory moments in the play's second act, all of which stem from the production's one fully developed relationship between Wiggins (Keith Patrick McCoy) and Jefferson (Darrin D. Miller).

Through February 10th

During intermission for Theatre Memphis' engaging production of Craig Wright's The Pavilion, I found myself in a debate with several of Memphis' most respected directors. Each of them expressed their disdain for shows staged in the round. Though several reasons were listed, they all kept coming back to a common point: They didn't like watching "half a show."

All due respect, but I must confess a certain amount of shock, since I was sitting in the same theater and I didn't see half a show. Quite the opposite, I saw four shows all at once as each quadrant of the theater had a slightly different perspective on Wright's wordy meditation on time and its ability to change everything and nothing.

I heard every word, never saw an actor vanish as they moved away from me, and when my concentration broke and I saw a fellow audience member sitting across the aisle grinning, it only intensified the communal nature of a theatrical experience.

Set during a 20-year high school reunion, Wright's play manages to be sentimental without becoming cloying or giving in to pretension. It tells the story of Peter and Kari, former sweethearts driven apart by horrible mistakes and kept apart by a pain that refuses to fade. In spite of having almost no chemistry between them, Theatre Memphis regulars Michael Khanlarian and Tracie Hansom are excellent as the couple who should have been but never were. But the show belongs to narrator Kell Christie, who, gracefully and with the simplest gestures, plays the rest of the class of '88: stoners, cops, soccer moms, and everyone in between. Her greatest accomplishment is finding the promising 18-year-old that lives inside of each of these screwed-up adults.

The Pavilion is a lyrical ode to the middle-class children of the 1990s who came of age in relative peace and prosperity, so they never really had to grow up. Its themes will be familiar to fans of late-20th-century indie rock or to anyone who has ever rented the John Cusack film High Fidelity more than once.

With metaphors built around the concept of time and space, The Pavilion is an excellent play to enjoy in the round, provided you're not naturally inclined to dislike this wonderfully liberating format, as some apparently are. Oh, well ...

Through January 27th

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