News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

November 17, 2011

Play helps inmates have productive life in prison

CARLISLE — Kevin Henry used to believe that prison was a people warehouse.

But after participating in the Theater Of Tears And Laughter at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, he said Wednesday that he has learned that it is possible to have a productive life in prison.

“It may not be the life you want, but it’s the life we’ve got right now,” Henry told about 25 other offenders following the T.O.T.A.L. production of the original play “Tuesdays With Mortie.”

The play was written by six offenders with the assistance of Jacquelyn Frank, coordinator of the master’s program in gerontology at Eastern Illinois University. With eight scenes that switch between a prison classroom and a patient’s room in a hospice unit, the characters discuss forgiveness, and try to come to terms with how their actions have affected other lives and led to their own incarceration.

“Forgiveness is part of life’s journey, part of our growth, and that’s true whether you’re giving it or receiving it,” writer and performer Gary Green shared following the production.

Using minimal costume enhancements to their tan prison clothes, and the strategic placement of chairs as the setting inside the facility’s north chapel, the play featured James Emby as Dr. Kevorkian speaking to four offenders about their prison journey, alternating with Kevorkian’s interaction with a dying man in hospice care who is visited on Tuesdays by a talking dog named Mortie.

Henry portrays the crusty and cranky Ted, who is bitter not only because he is dying of cancer because of Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War, but also because his beloved wife was shot and killed years earlier during a robbery.

Mortie, played on all fours by Jon-Adam Omstead, talks to Ted about forgiveness. The dying man eventually forgives not only the person who killed his wife, but also forgives himself for not being with her when the shooting occurred. The audience learns at the close of the play that one of the four offenders being counseled by Kevorkian is the person who shot Ted’s wife. That offender, Patrick Cox, also participated in a play-within-a-play as the quartet produced a scene from “Les Miserables” in which the character Jean Valjean (Cox) receives forgiveness from a priest (Steve Pigg) for stealing from the priest after being fed dinner.

Offender Danjo Graziano also learns about forgiveness by playing the police officer who arrests Valjean, then witnesses the priest’s grace as a form of “paying forward” the forgiveness that Valjean resolves to accept and share for a better life.

Each participant has to grapple with the concept of holding a grudge, whether against individuals or society or the court system that sent them to prison, and each one must get past that grudge.

As Green, who plays the dog handler, states at the outset to the offender audience, “There’s a little bit of each of us written into this play.”

Theater allows its participants to be a part of a community, either inside of prison or outside, Green said.

Many of the T.O.T.A.L. members had already worked together on prior Shakespeare productions. Professor Frank became involved with that group and also did a research project at the prison on aging. When the Shakespeare group ended, she took on the task of helping guide development of the original production.

While the offenders jokingly call her an accomplice, Frank said the dialogue is entirely their own, with a scene from Les Miserables thrown in. They adapted the play “Tuesdays with Morrie” to get the interaction between Ted and the talking dog. It took about nine months to bring the play from idea to production, with the group meeting weekly with Frank.

Omstead said as the group tossed around ideas, the hospice scenes came about because of offenders in the infirmary, and through his personal desire to be a talking dog. Offender John Lock also gave a hilarious performance as a patient who liked to watch televised football while hollering for the drug Thorazine. Offender Michael Hart handled the musical transitions, as well as orderly duties for hospice.

The offender audience often responded positively to the inside humor as well as the serious subjects in the play. Some asked how they could become involved in the theater group, and many congratulated the performers on their efforts and on the thoughtful topic that showed prison is not just a warehouse for the unforgiven.

Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.

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