Every one of the 3,000-plus U.S. inmates currently sitting on Death Row must have a bleak story to tell of brutality and despair. But in When I Come to Die, a new prison drama premiering under Thomas Kail’s direction at LCT3, playwright Nathan Louis Jackson chooses to write a sweet, uplifting execution tale—as if striving to accentuate the positive in America’s worst sociopathic nightmares.
Damon Robinson (Chris Chalk) came to his onstage cell from the rough side of Indianapolis; when the play opens, he has just received a temporary, unexpected reprieve after his lethal injection miraculously malfunctioned. Through his subsequent blooming friendships with a kindly priest (Neal Huff) and lonely blockmate (David Patrick Kelly), the anger-fueled Robinson gradually softens. The play delivers its warm-hearted message unashamedly: Even a condemned baby-killer can find meaning by helping others. Jackson denies us information about the homicides darkening these two inmates’ pasts until the last moments, so we can perceive the characters without moral judgments. But despite Chalk’s focused performance, there’s no convincing indication in the play that this is a man who has both killed and been sentenced to die. A Death Row where residents strive for—and tidily achieve—personal growth? Harder evidence is needed.