Theater professor Peter Harrigan, who is also chair of the St. Michael’s College fine arts department, likes his students to occasionally dig deep, staging works with social-justice resonance. This semester’s selection fits the bill perfectly: Dead Man Walking. Originally a book written by Sister Helen Prejean — with the subhead An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States — the story of a nun and her relationship with a death-row inmate in Louisiana was made into a 1995 movie. Fans of that film, starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, know that Tim Robbins wrote the screenplay, directed and produced it. They may not know that he also wrote a version for the stage — specifically for college students to perform.
“So far, more than 250 colleges have licensed and produced the play,” says Harrigan.
St. Mike’s parlayed the provocative death-penalty topic into a three-part series: a talk by Sister Helen herself earlier this month; another talk, this past Tuesday, titled “Faculty Perspectives on the Death Penalty”; and, finally, the play itself. The project “is a great fit for St. Michael’s College because we’re so small, you can really have a campuswide discussion,” Harrigan notes.
The students’ first performance, next Tuesday, will be a pared-down version for an audience of inmates at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington. Eight of the 22 cast members got a preview of the venue during a visit on which they met prison staff, medical personnel and some of the female inmates, Harrigan says. “Compared to an all-male, maximum-security prison, it’s more humane and holistic, in general,” he observes. “But it was still sobering.”
‘Dead Man Walking’: The St. Michael’s College theater department presents public performances Thursday through Saturday, April 11 to 13 and 18 to 20, 7 p.m., at the SMC McCarthy Arts Center. Free. smctheatre.blogspot.com