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Prisoners Are People The director of "Murder in the First" finds the human story in awful crimes

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

Even when he's not in a scene, he's on stage for most of the play.

Curled on his prison mattress or slouched against a jailhouse wall, Willie (Chad Kimball) lingers like a ghost around Murder in the First, the stage adaptation of the early 90s film that's now at 59E59. The show follows Henry, a young lawyer who believes that Willie, his client, has been destroyed by three years in solitary confinement at Alcatraz. Henry not only wants to spare Willie from further punishment, but also wants to prosecute the leaders of Alcatraz itself, claiming their methods turn men into animals.

Alcatraz may have closed in 1963, but Henry's argument resonates with current debates about America's prison system. That's why director Michael Parva wants Willie on stage as often as possible. "There's a lot going on around him and because of him, and [when that happens], that person, that human being, can all of a sudden become an abstract argument," he says. "And even though this happened decades ago, I think we're still conflicted about how to deal with capital punishment and crime. The play could key into an intellectual debate very easily, and I didn't want that to happen. I wanted the audience to always be aware of Willie: We're talking about a real person, a real life."

Along with playwright Dan Gordon, who also wrote the film, Parva tries to foreground human relationships in every aspect of the production. In one crucial scene, Henry (Guy Burnet) gets assaulted while interviewing a controversial witness, but we never see the attack. Instead, we see the aftermath, when Henry explains himself to a worried girlfriend and an angry boss. "Theatre is well-served if it can deal with human relationships, and that's where we chose to turn our energies," Parva says.

To that end, he also asked Gordon to beef up the character of Henry's brother Byron, a successful corporate attorney who's torn between helping his brother and protecting his own reputation. As the show developed, Gordon added a short scene where Byron commiserates with Henry about the challenge of being a lawyer. Even though it's brief, that gentle moment is vital because it demonstrates an emotional connection between the brothers.  Without it, we might not understand the passion of their later arguments.

Parva is especially interested in making these characters feel human because Murder in the First is loosely based on actual history. "I seem to be attracted to stories that are inspired by real events," says the director, who also helmed Gordon's play Irena's Vow, about a real-life woman who rescued Jews from Nazi-occupied Poland.

For Parva, a play rooted in reality demands a special kind of attention. "There's a dimension where I say, 'Gee, someone actually struggled with this,'" he says. "It moves me even further. It motivates me. Somehow, I feel like I'm carrying a torch for that person who went through it."

In other words, if Parva's directing a play that was inspired by real prisoners, then it only makes sense for him to put a real prisoner on stage for most of the show. "There's a little bit of extra responsibility," he says. "There's a sense of honoring another human being with this event."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Carol Rosegg