At Xavier University, there’s an ongoing and serious conversation about the ethics of capital punishment. That dialogue is captured in this performance, directed by Cathy Springfield, which opens with Professor Patrick Welage (who directs XU’s Peace and Justice Program) re-creating his Day One lecture to a class of students who come to learn more about a justice system that executes criminals.
Molly Boehringer-Brown and Scotty Alison first play two students in Welage’s class. Each is assigned a pen pal who is a prisoner on Ohio’s Death Row. She is clearly in the anti-death penalty camp; he believes in executing those convicted of horrific crimes. But neither one has anything but stereotypical views formed from TV shows and movies.
Their correspondence with two inmates, Velma and Victor, provides considerably more texture for their understanding. Most of the hour-long show has Boehringer-Brown as Velma and Alison as Victor giving voice to letters the prisoners send to the two students. It’s clear that their words are informed by — and likely literally drawn from — real letters. The inmates each defend their acts and voice opinions about their circumstances; it becomes harder to condemn them as their personalities and humanity take shape, even if their guilt is evident, especially in Victor’s case.
Their potential for growth and redemption is also an element of this production. Both are people who have grown and matured; it’s easy to imagine their potential to be people who regret their crimes and might contribute to society.
The Killing State is interlaced with video presentations: a recreation of the rape and murder scene from Dead Man Walking; a recording of Ron Keine, a man who spent two years on Death Row before being exonerated; and a vigil in Lucasville, Ohio, prior to the execution of a convicted killer. Each serves a purpose and is well presented, although Keine’s edited remarks aren't visually interesting and go on longer than necessary. The genuine emotion of the vigil participants — especially Cincinnati's own Sr. Alice Gerdeman, C.D.P, a death penalty opponent, to whom the production is dedicated — is effectively captured by the video and is especially moving.
This is the kind of polemic piece that’s perfectly and appropriately at home in a fringe festival. There’s no doubt about the sentiments of those involved in staging this work — which is minimally presented at InkTank — especially when a gurney with a body is rolled out and left at center stage following their curtain call. But we see how both students become engaged at a more personal level to form more realistic opinions because of their contact with the prisoners. We witness how person-to-person communication raises doubts about the validity and the justice of a state that kills its citizens. I’m not certain that this performance will change anyone’s attitudes, but it will certainly provide a clearer picture of the issues.
Boehringer-Brown and Allison offer textured performances as the inmates. Velma is angry, volatile and sensitive, self-aware and selfishly defensive at the same time. Victor vacillates between normal interests like baking and reading to anger at being bypassed by Court TV and further condemned by the results of a DNA sample. During the latter episode, we hear chilling evidence of his ruthless side.
Both actors are less convincing as the simplistic students, but that’s OK. The Killing State is making a point, and these young people are the means to an end. The memorable letters rendered as monologues are the meat of this performance. Grade: B
— Rick Pender