Streetlight Theatre Company

at the Black Star Cafe

A dramatist has every right to promote passionately a cause he or she may consider bigger than the play itself–provided the results amount to more play than propaganda. If facts alone were enough, we’d call a theatrical piece a “tell” and not a “show.” The best intentions, the hottest subjects still require enough discipline to shape sincerity into substance; audiences must feel they can touch the play before it can hope to touch them.

A fervent, 90-minute indictment of capital punishment, To God Alone: The Final Hours of Robert A. Sullivan details a true and important story that no one arguing against–or for–the death penalty can afford to ignore. If playwright David Nava (who has also written about the last man to be publicly hanged in Illinois) had dramatized Robert Sullivan’s plight instead of merely parceling out the arguments to various voices, or if he were preaching to the unconverted (or even preached a bit less, period), To God Alone would gain an urgency to match its material. Still, for those who share its anger to begin with, Nava’s play is one fine way to keep the faith.

Based on an article in Rolling Stone about a possibly innocent man who was executed after spending ten years on death row, To God Alone draws its strength from the questions it raises, not from its editorializing exhortations. (We have, after all, already been exposed to similar issues many times, already trodden this ugly path of hysterical “justice” with the Salem witches, the Haymarket Square anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg–and the saga’s far from over yet.)

In 1973 Robert Sullivan was accused of the robbery and brutal murder of a father of five, the manager of a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Florida. But as the play’s surreal trial suggests, in the condemned man’s eleventh-hour flashback, Sullivan’s real crime was that he was a Catholic homosexual who had lived in the north. Sullivan was reportedly framed by the real killer, who gave him the dead man’s watch and other effects to pay for a hotel room they shared. Though he made a (possibly coerced) police confession (which failed to fit the facts of the crime), Sullivan’s real downfall was his inept defense, by a lazy lawyer who refused to contact witnesses to support Sullivan’s alibi that he was in Keith’s Cruise Room at the time of the murder. As it turned out, however, that omission hardly mattered: because they’d have had to testify that they were in a gay bar, several defense witnesses later refused to testify anyway. There was also talk of a priest who took (and hid) a murder confession from the supposed real murderer.

Before his execution in November 1983, Sullivan had become a cause celebre among Catholics (even the Pope), the ACLU, and some gay organizations. Though Florida’s governor, Robert Graham, appeared to be caught in the cross fire between hard-liners and death-penalty opponents, he was also provided by the Sullivan case with the perfect situation for coming down hard on the side of law and order: by executing an expendable white man, Graham could answer those critics who said capital punishment was unfair to minorities–and at the same time he could safely play God with the life of a man he knew would have few defenders among the electorate. (For Graham it was, to put it bluntly, the perfect crime.)

Nava’s prison setting, amplified by assorted free-form confessions from those connected with the case, provides the backdrop for Sullivan’s five-day deathwatch. We see Sullivan wondering, after so many delays, whether this time it’s the real thing. He pleads with the authorities not to gag him as they did the hysterical Spink. And he keeps looking for signs that he’ll be saved, or else isn’t meant to be–even in a football game’s score spread. Sullivan’s new lawyer tells how being raped filled her with a rage she knew was as terrible as the crime itself; the memory of her own vigilante ethic prompts her to fight the government’s similarly pointless vengeance.

On the other side, the disillusioned, Pilate-like prison warden conveniently declares moral considerations “none of my business.” A sergeant instructs a rookie executioner in the niceties of eliminating a fellow human without himself throwing up. He wonders why, if the state is so positive of the deterrent effect of capital punishment, it won’t televise the executions. None of this is subtle–but then life-and-death matters seldom are.

Sullivan himself comes off as less of a sympathetic martyr than his supporters intend. More intent on being allowed to make his last statement than on trying to escape “Sparky” (as the guards call the electric chair), he’s awfully saintly in his religious resignation. His sole concern is that others continue the fight against capital punishment and that his innocence–somehow, someday–be vindicated. Sullivan’s one moment of despair–“Why me?”–passes quickly. He’s so eager to reserve a place in heaven that he sabotages his cause on earth.

As Nava paints things and Linda Rodriguez directs them in this sometimes tepid, stiff, and rocky Streetlight Theatre Company staging, there’s little ambiguity, little sense of the real Sullivan. (However, despite Nava’s black-and-white portrayal of the situation, you can still leave the Black Star Cafe with doubts about this man’s innocence.) Instead we face mainly unprocessed details: while in jail, Sullivan studied to be a business major but couldn’t complete the degree because it required six hours of work on campus; he taught an inmate how to read; he wanted a turkey sandwich for his last meal, to honor the governor. A cardboard victim, Ken McCoy plays the about-to-be-executed man regrettably like the “sacrificial lamb” Sullivan calls himself. Providing solid support, Chris Banholzer has a fine moment as Margaret, Sullivan’s Darrow-like attorney (you wonder why she didn’t sway the appeals court). And as the sergeant, Michael Grogan nicely grounds his role in the grungy situational ethics that Nava sporadically seems to espouse.

Beyond a reasonable doubt, Sullivan deserved a second trial. Maybe he was innocent. But the most persuasive argument against capital punishment is that it’s as wrong to execute the guilty as the innocent. With all its rough-hewn earnestness, To God Alone still begs the question.