Death-row prisoner Damon Robinson has been reborn, though he is no angel. After a lethal injection fails to kill him, he sits on a cot in his cell, disoriented and confused. He was prepared to die. Now what?
In the cell next to Damon's, James "Roach" Teagle is a little spooked. He wonders how Damon's uncanny survival might affect his own fate. He frets over final words, rehearsing daily: "Good day to you all, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining me ..."
"Ladies and gentlemen" are, in fact, the first words we hear in Nathan Louis Jackson's When I Come to Die, which addresses us from a place we don't often think about. Unless a scheduled execution gets some media play — lawyers are appealing, DNA evidence is being examined — the condemned inmate is already forgotten.
Jackson, a playwright in residence at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, gives depth and a distinctive voice to these exiles. He doesn't judge them but frees them from stereotype and lets them challenge our preconceived ideas about those whom the state locks away and means to execute. It's a small play connected to a big subject. Under Kyle Hatley's direction and led by Will Cobbs (fierce and charismatic as Damon) and Conan McCarty (excellent as Roach), the quietly powerful 90-minute one-act never loses focus or lets out attention stray.
Is Damon a miracle? Is he a monster? The warden and the governor (who never appear) — and the prison priest, Adrian Crouse (Kevin Cristaldi, in a sensitive portrayal) — want to understand what happened and, ultimately, how to proceed.
Damon, who professes no religion, finds a secular solace in his meetings with Crouse, who urges him to make use of whatever time he has left. For most of the play, we don't know Damon's or Roach's crimes. We see just flawed people before us, experiencing their world of confinement, boredom and no control.
There's little contact between prisoners, whose isolation is profound. "I sit in a cell all day," Damon says. He holds on to shoeboxes filled with letters that his family returned unopened. No one has visited him in years, so he reads them aloud to keep himself company. Roach wants to get outside for an hour, but his request is denied. Their claustrophobia — the lack of fresh air, the idleness, the loneliness — is palpable. (The impressive set by Jack Magaw and Courtney O'Neil contributes to the sterile atmosphere.) A long row of prison cells, convincingly metallic- and concrete-looking, take up the breadth of the stage, a bare light bulb in each. In front of that backdrop, Damon and Roach inhabit adjoining cells and talk around the imaginary wall separating them.
When Damon's younger sister, Chantel (the very good Janae Nicole Mitchell, a third-year MFA student), shows up for a visit, she may have a motive for finally reaching out. They converse from opposite sides of the stage, staring out at the audience. It's a touching scene, though projections of their faces high above them, perhaps to augment their having to speak through a barrier, distract. (They might be useful to those in the nosebleed section of the Copaken, which is a vast venue for such an intimate play.)
In scene changes between the prison cells and the priest's office, raised flooring slides on tracks, accompanied by a clang of metal doors, leg chains and handcuffs (sound design by Joseph Concha), reflecting the cold prison environment and its regimentation. Protesters, too — for and against Damon's execution — can be heard outside, and other prisoners' voices rise when Damon, frustrated and angry, tries to "shake things up."
"We've been given more time but we're just sitting here," he says. "We gotta do something." But there's not much to do here but wait, with as much sense of self as possible.