by Kristin Skye Hoffmann · August 14, 2014
There is a sad truth that our country is imbalanced in terms of gender equality, especially concerning domestic abuse and the options available to the victims. For this reason I was very much looking forward to Working Artists Theatre Project’s comment on the vicious cycle that exists in American culture today. The project is inspired by the research of Dr. Elizabeth Dermody who studied the cycle of battered women who kill. Dermody contacted playwright Warren Doody to create the piece for the stage and the project has been performing since 2001.
His text follows Helen Broker, played with subtlety by Lolita Brinkley, as she faces the parole board for potential release after serving several years in prison. Broker recounts her story as an ensemble of fellow inmates recount their own. The spliced structure is an effective tool to portray the idea that while each one of these women are individuals, the cycle of violence and abuse they have experienced is in essence the very same story. The verbal, emotional and physical abuse of these women and their children is so predictable that it seems like there should be a way to prevent this level of fatal violence.
The stories in Life Without Parole are presented as an hour and a half saturation of trauma. The accounts are so horrific and heartbreaking that to overload an audience with pain is a great way to inspire them to disconnect from the characters. We are human begins and eventually our fight or flight instincts kick in mentally and this production inspires a deep sense of hopelessness that begins with the title, Life Without Parole. The extreme hopelessness is likely intended to spur the audience into action and perhaps for some people it worked. For me and my theatre going companions; we felt trapped, like there were no options and rather than leaving feeling moved to action we felt small and powerless. A play about women who attempt to take back their freedom the only way they can should remind us that we are strong survivors living in a system that works hard to perpetuate the Rape Culture (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_culture) in which we are living. The women portrayed in Life Without Parole are portrayed predominantly as victims of the system and there isn’t really any question that that is what they are.
It is always good to see a play with a multitude of complex roles for female actors. The actors range in age and ethnicity. The actors’ performances are as diverse as the women themselves. Some actors don’t quite have their lines memorized well enough not to carry their scripts and others clearly connect deeply. Similarly the range of performances leap from an emotionally separated desensitization to extremely impassioned and sentimental, often to a fault. The most difficult place to live as an actor is out of the extremes and few of actors achieve this.
Anne Bobby’s portrayal of Charlotte Ivory, a middle-aged southern inmate, was by far the most relatable. Bobby speaks like she knows her listeners personally and she remains present in the moment from top to bottom. She’s in pain but she tries her best make the best of it while never abandoning her circumstances. John Moss as Joseph Kellerman, the head of the parole board, is perfectly cast. He is simultaneously frustrating and understandable as a man who has heard the same story so many times he has become desensitized to it.
Costume designer Cailtin Conci made a vital misstep by costuming the supporting players in silly “hair pieces” to unnecessarily differentiate between supporting players. The simplistic staging from director Jennifer Dermody is effective without this out-of-place element, which detracts from the seriousness of the subject matter.