The five principal characters in Life Without Parole, the Working Artists Theatre Project’s entry in this year’s New York International Fringe Festival, spend roughly 80% of the show stuck in their folding chairs. This is a kind way of saying that the production is about 20% on its feet. Historically, shows that have done well at Fringe were often offbeat musicals, or comedic one-handers. An 85 minute, large-cast drama about prison life, domestic abuse, and endangered children is a much tougher task given the festival’s time, space and financial limitations. Here, an unsteady ensemble and a problematic script do nothing to help things along.
The play is set within the confines of a women’s prison. As Helen (Lolita Brinkley) testifies at her parole board hearing, her scenes are intercut with four of her fellow jailbirds speaking their troubled minds at an inmate support group. Helen and the parole board sit center stage. The other prisoners are seated downstage to Helen’s left and right. Were one to make physical comparisons between this tableau and the cast of a certain TV prison drama about other women in orange garb, one would see definite correlations for each, especially in the thin, blonde Sherie (Karah Gravatt) who could be Piper Chapman’s sister. But their burdens are brutally different. These five women are serving time for killing their abusive mates. Unfortunately, none are apparently enraged enough by the injustice of their incarceration to monologue in a fully upright position, through the most vivid of the bunch, Charlotte (Anne Bobby), makes a stab at it at one point, with Bobby’s actorly instinct lifting her from her perch, before the director’s staging pulls her back down like a seatbelt.
Playwright Warren Doody scripted this piece from actual transcripts and testimonies of women who served time at the California Institution for Women at Chino, as chronicled in the book Convicted Survivors: The Imprisonment of Battered Women Who Kill, by Dr. Elizabeth Dermody Leonard. An apparent relative of the late author, Jessica Dermody, directs this drama and is all too happy to let the words speak for themselves. More often than not, it is clear that we are listening to transcripts instead of engaging in dialogue. And not only must all the actors recite while pinned to their chairs, poor Ms. Brinkley has the additional dilemma of attempting to propel the main storyline while in handcuffs.
The real restraints however lie in the production’s over-reliance on its source material. Unlike the characters of Orange Is the New Black, we never have sympathy for these victims because we know nothing of who they once were in better times. We get the facts of their crimes and quite a bit about the brutality of their husbands, but no humanizing flashbacks, no real sense of their humor or of their needs, beyond the need to protect their children at any cost. Nor do we much witness their bonding behind bars. Weighing matters down further is the fact that their stories of abuse, while surely tragic, are not especially gripping in a world made insensitive by a steady stream of very similar horrors broadcast daily on Netflix and in the news. Grace, played by a barely audible Annette Hunt, performing on opening night with script in hand, sums up the play’s downfall, as well as humanity’s, when she points out that all these violent men seem to come from out of a Xerox machine, all with the “same common threads.”
Life Without Parole – By Warren Doody; Directed by Jessica Dermody
WITH: Anne Bobby (Charlotte), Lolita Brinkley (Helen), Karah Gravatt (Sherie), Annette Hunt (Grace), Mark Lyons (Guard/Fontane/Kraft), Lil Malinich (Guard/Steege/Shaeffer), John Moss (Kellerman) and Adrienne D. Williams (Barbara).
Costumes by Caitlin Conci; Lighting by Michael O’Connor; stage manager, Joanne Schwartzberg; At the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk Street, 866-468-7619, Remaining Performances – Saturday, August 16 at 7:00 pm, Sunday, August 17 at 12:30 pm, Thursday, August 21 at 2:30 pm, Saturday, August 23 at 12:00 pm, http://www.fringenyc.org, Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes.