Xavier chosen to stage Dead Man Walking

Play based on the eponymous book by Helen Prejean about her experience ministering to death-row inmate, Matthew Poncelet | February 1, 2005

About two dozen Jesuit high schools and universities, including Xavier, were the first to perform actor Tim Robbins' award-winning play, Dead Man Walking, adapted from the movie he wrote and directed. The film itself is based on the eponymous book written by Sister Helen Prejean about her experience of ministering to death-row inmate Matthew Poncelet.

Robbins made it a point to invite Jesuit institutions to be the first to produce the play. “Tim has chosen Jesuit schools because he has high regard for the way Jesuit schools emphasize social justice as integral to Catholicism,” says Prejean.

Robbins hopes the play “widens the circle of public discourse on the death penalty.” He calls his play a work in progress and says he wrote it because “raising questions, promoting public discourse is what theater is all about.”

At Xavier, junior Andy Oare portrayd Poncelet and senior Katy Leslie took on the role of Prejean.

“This is a very important project and it’s exceptional for Xavier to have it,” says Oare. “All the actors have a common vision.”

To help prepare for their roles and to better understand the issue, every member of the cast and the play’s director, Cathy Springfield, wrote letters to death row inmates. The letter-writing project was coordinated by Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center in Cincinnati.

The production opened with a film, produced by the Xavier Players, which Springfield calls “expressive,” of Poncelet’s crime. A different version of the film was shown during the play as Poncelet nears his execution.

“We hope the films [made] people focus on their own feelings about a ‘life for a life,’” says Springfield.

The Xavier production was coordinated with other activities and explorations into the subject of the death penalty. During the week of the show there was a debate on the topic of the death penalty where both sides of the issue were represented. After each performance representatives of victims’ support groups answered questions and discussed the topic. Several campus groups, including the Dorothy Day House and peace and justice programs, distributed information on the death penalty and circulated petitions calling for a moratorium and/or a ban on the death penalty.

The production involved a very minimal set designed by Tammy Honesty and a soundscape by Chuck Hatcher from the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music (CCM). Three students from CCM Prep are part of the 30-member cast.

The show ran Feb. 24-27, at 7:30 p.m. in the Gallagher Student Center Theater.