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When I Come to Die

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

When I Come to Die
Michael Balderrama and Chris Chalk.
Photo by Erin Baiano.

For those of us on the outside, the idea of being in prison resembles that of being in love or being insane: It's incomprehensible until it happens to you. Nathan Louis Jackson’s biggest achievement with his new play When I Come to Die, which Lincoln Center is producing at the Duke on 42nd Street as part of its LCT3 program, is that he captures exactly what life behind bars seems most like to people who've never been there: a landscape of tedium intermittently punctuated with events of undeniable excitement.

If this sounds like both a good and a bad thing — it is. Jackson and director Thomas Kail, who demonstrated with Jackson’s debut play Broke-ology two years ago (also for Lincoln Center) an exceptional understanding for unexceptional people, have made this a rigidly realistic outing that's often too earthbound for its own good. Dealing as it does with matters spiritual and psychological as well as penal, there are many times it feels poised to soar, but lacks the proper propulsion. Perhaps this is apt as a reflection of the play’s central character, Damon Robinson, but it doesn’t always make for electrifying theatre.

Ideally, it would, because the story of Damon (Chris Chalk) is anything but ordinary. After languishing on Death Row at Indiana State Prison for a decade after he killed a policeman and his baby, Damon was finally taken for his lethal injection — and came away alive. While Damon’s sister Chantel (Amanda Mason Warren), neighbor “Roach” (David Patrick Kelly), and the prison guard (Michael Balderrama) and priest (Neal Huff) try to cope with what happened, Damon is faced with an even more daunting challenge: How does he fill new hours and days he never expected to have?

Jackson’s ability to conceive such an intriguing plot is not matched by his execution of it. Except for a momentary flight of fancy, in which Damon and Roach embark on an imaginary fishing trip, Damon’s survival is the only unusual facet of his existence. The rest of the play's 90-minute running time is packed with incident — Damon incites a peaceful riot, tries to console Roach in his own final days, forms a friendship with the priest based on their mutual love for sports, and learns exactly where Chantel's loyalties lie — but little insight. The overriding message is that even miracles are meaningless when they happen to people who can't appreciate them.

There's nothing wrong with that as a moral, unless a stirring setup leaves you expecting grand revelations and powerful introspection instead of more pedestrian pleasures. Much of When I Come to Die is a run-of-the-mill incarceration procedural, rife with details in the way the guard handcuffs prisoners or escorts them through the hallways. (Robin Vest’s hollow, institutional set, Betsy Adams's dusty lighting, and Jill BC DuBoff’s echo-rich sound design complement all this beautifully.) But Jackson has raised the stakes so high that the extravagant lengths to which he and Kail depict this world of regimented order intrude upon, rather than illuminate, any deeper questions.

This affects some of the performances, too. Kelly highlights all of Roach’s grating, never-shut-up nature, but none of the innocent charm that might make his endless speeches about scurrying insects and the finer points of his last words bearable. Balderrama's guard is a towering mass of frozen menace, appropriately enigmatic if not subtly drawn. Warren makes Chantel a bit too callous and calculating; the character needs more layers of concern to mask her deeper, uglier intentions. Huff, however, is never cloying, condescending, or even obvious as the priest, but genuinely and gently conflicted as he tries to smooth a road he knows will be difficult. He establishes an easy, yet distant, rapport with those around him that's just right for the man and the mission.

Chalk, who was so dynamic last season as the wayward son in the Broadway revival of Fences, is terrific here as well, balancing Damon's inner monster and thoughtful predilections with grace. The meticulousness with which he arranges boxes of returned letters on his bed (his sole reading material), and endures both Roach's insensate mumblings and the priest's prodding toward absolution, identify Damon as a man of deep feeling who both does and does not deserve the fate he's written for himself. Yet Chalk never overtly begs for your sympathy — it's an ideally cold performance of a man who's learning, too late, how to best be warm.

Even Chalk, fine as he is, can't bridge every yawning gap between what When I Come to Die is, thinks it is, and wants to be. He can portray Damon as the lost man clinging to the last threads of life, but not as some undiscovered philosopher king that can dissect the universe; Jackson has provided a task and tools that do not go together. The point may be that they never could for someone like Damon, and this is yet another opportunity that the exigencies of circumstance have squandered. But there are too many disconnects for Damon's shot at salvation to legitimately be considered ours as well.


When I Come to Die
Through February 26
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: www.newvictory.org