By Cynthia Citron
“Death House” is not a play for the faint of heart. But if it were a film instead of a play, it would most assuredly win an Oscar for the Best Film of the Decade. With Best awards for each of the three actors, as well as for the playwright and the director.
The playwright is Jason Karasev, the director is Michael Peretzian, and the actors are Sam Anderson, Chase Cargill, and Verity Branco, and together they experience so many intense moments that in the end it leaves them, and the audience, completely wrung out. But it’s worth every moment of it!
Sam Anderson, as George, begins the action wandering around a starkly furnished “waiting for death” room, mumbling to himself. In addition to his position as preacher in a local church, he also serves as spiritual advisor to the men and women sentenced to death and housed in this nearby prison. He has been the prison’s chaplain for more than 30 years, and this work has taken its emotional toll. But now he is to be replaced by a younger man, a preacher who has a much harsher view of criminals and crime. And it is George’s job to show him the ropes.
The new man, Allen (Chase Cargill), breezes in full of excitement, anxious to show George, his early mentor, how successfully he has mastered all the routine processes leading up to tonight’s electrocution. But he angers George almost immediately by abridging some of the steps with a boisterous “And blah, blah, blah…”
George, incensed, realizes that this man, Allen, is the wrong man for the job. And Allen confirms that assessment as they reveal their very different approaches to the work. Allen believes he can help the prisoners by talking to them about God, but he acknowledges to George that “Criminals deserve the punishment they get, and we are providing justice.”
“We have nothing to do with justice,” George snaps, “we have responsibility! I am their friend,” he adds. “Sometimes the only friend they have.”
“You will be with them for six hours and they will come to trust you,” he continues. “And their families will be present at the end.”
Allen responds with anger, protesting that it is a privilege to be entrusted with this job, to which George responds, “It’s not a privilege, it’s a burden. And you’re going to do it 80 or 90 times.”
As their conversation escalates, George asks Allen why he is so angry and so full of hate. “Hate does not heal hate,” he says, as Allen responds by vomiting. “(These prisoners) are my family,” George says. “Have you no compassion?”
At this point there is loud banging on the room’s metal door and George opens it to admit the condemned prisoner — a woman.
And so the second act begins as Liliana (Verity Branco) brings a new dimension to the discussion. She is young and beautiful. Also calm and resigned to her fate. And intuitive enough to recognize that Allen has a drinking problem. As she enters their conversation she slowly draws them out until, eventually, all their secrets have been disclosed. Including hers.
At her request, George produces a “last supper” on paper plates, with a bedsheet serving as a tablecloth, and other makeshift refinements, and when it is finished she begs him to take her verbally through the procedures, one by one, that she is soon to undergo. It is a devastating scene, second only to the unseen execution, which ends the play.
I have to emphasize, once again, that this play is remarkable for its verbal exchanges and for the way the three magnificent actors bring it to life. It’s a production that ought to be seen by everyone, no matter which side of the death penalty issue they espouse.
“Death House” will play Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through March10th at The Road Theatre on Lankershim, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. For tickets call (818) 761-8838 or online at www.roadtheatre.org.