‘Dead Man Walking’ an excellent debut

Kathleen McFadden

Villanova Student Theatre’s production of “Dead Man Walking” premiered Tuesday night as the organization’s anticipated spring performance and the final addition to its impressive 20th season.

Originally written as a novel by Sister Helen Prejean, “Dead Man Walking” was adapted into film by Tim Robbins in the mid-1990s. In 2002, Robbins wrote the stage script for college theatre productions.

The Villanova Student Theatre chose “Dead Man Walking” not only for its theatrical merit, but also for its message on social justice issues. This important message breaks down to one simple phrase: “theatre for social change.”

By collaborating with the graduate Villanova theatre department, as well as numerous organizations on campus that promote social justice and change, the VST offers audience members a different perspective on the death penalty.

In addition to the Villanova theatre department, the Office of Mission Effectiveness and the Theology Institute as sponsors, many other campus organizations support this production and have played integral roles in making the show a reality.

Other on-campus sponsors include the Center for Peace and Justice, Villanova Amnesty International, St. Thomas of Villanova Parish, the Office of Service Learning, the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice, Villanovans for Life, the Center for Peace & Justice Education and Campus Ministry. 

In his note to the audience, director Rev. David Cregan, O.S.A., says that he felt “Dead Man Walking” was the perfect fit for him and Villanova because it was the “ideal opportunity to bring the art of stagecraft together with the Augustinian mission to forward Catholic issues of peace and justice.”

Going beyond a simple acting performance, “Dead Man Walking” serves as a lesson of morality and forces the audience to question social justice issues.

Based on true events, “Dead Man Walking” tells the story of Sister Helen Prejean (Shannon O’Connor), a nun who fights against capitol punishment.

Prejean counsels prisoners awaiting execution on death row, and in the story, an unlikely yet special bond blossoms between Prejean and a death row prisoner, Matthew Poncelet (Michael Hallman).

In addition to questioning the death penalty, social justice issues of racism and sexism emerge as Prejean fights to have Poncelet live life behind bars rather than face execution.

Prejean and Poncelet captivate the audience in St. Mary’s open auditorium.

All of the actors grasp the strong emotions accompanying death and a desire for justice.

It is daunting to realize these actors are students rather than full-time professionals.

The actors are so talented that they do not even need props or set changes.

Through the crafty usage of lighting and the single prop of foldable chairs, the cast told a completely accurate and compelling story on an open stage without confusion.

In a unique courtroom scene, each side of the death penalty debate argues their case. The audience becomes the jury as viewers begin to question their own beliefs on the issue.

Inimitable from several previous VST productions, “Dead Man Walking” is more than just a singular campus event. The show is one of many events included in the ‘Year of Forgiveness’ hosted by the University’s Office of Mission Effectiveness.

The ‘Year of Forgiveness’ series ends with a special event hosted by the Conference on Catholic Social Teacher and Criminal Justice. Titled “Reflections on Dead Man Walking,” this commencement features keynote speaker and author of the “Dead Man Walking” novel, Sister Helen Prejean. This event will take place on Tuesday, March 24 at 7 p.m. in the Jake Nevin Field House.

The Villanova Student Theatre’s performance of “Dead Man Walking” is playing tonight, Friday, Feb. 20 and Saturday, Feb. 21 at 8 p.m. in St. Mary’s Auditorium.

Tickets are $7 for students and advance tickets and are $10 at the door. Tickets can also be purchased online at student.villanova.edu/VST.

As hoped, the production leaves the audience with new perspectives on important social justice issues.

“My favorite part of the production is the way the theatre brings together many groups on campus and works with social justice organizations,” says Jessica Hermes, who plays Prejean’s mother in the play as well as the Governor.