A Lesson Before Dying, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. This play is rich with lessons about personal responsibility, facing challenges, and contributing to the greater good. No wonder it was selected for Steppenwolf’s Arts Exchange series of weekday performances for students (two Saturday stagings open to the public remain). In an expeditious 90 minutes, Romulus Linney’s stage adaptation conveys the power and insight of Ernest J. Gaines’s novel, focusing on the core characters’ conflicts while retaining the book’s humor, bite, and period flavor. In 1940s Louisiana an innocent black man sentenced to death by a jury of white men is taught to think himself a man and maybe even a hero by an embittered schoolteacher, who ends up learning about his own weaknesses and emerges a better person.
This skillful production never falters under the weight of its good intentions. The momentum of Linney’s taut, entertaining, affecting synthesis of Gaines’s story is enhanced by Edward Sobel’s deft direction: he keeps the action moving constantly. Some of the ensemble members don’t fully convey the characterizations lost when some of the exposition was excised, but Bakesta King, Sean Cooper, and Robert Breuler fare well in their supporting roles. Tory O. Davis warms up slowly as the confused condemned boy, but his slow shift to maturity, realizing his potential too late, gives the play poignancy.