There are stories so true and yet so bleak that many people don’t really want to hear them. Life Without Parole is one of these. Yet the play, produced by Working Artists Theatre Project in association with Karah Gravatt and Robert Tyrer and presented by the New York International Fringe Festival, is as powerful as any new play I have seen in years. Its message is a stark one. Women who are abused by the men in their lives often have no choice but to end the cycle of violence with their own violent actions. Often this happens after their children have been forced into the sphere of danger. And these women are often treated without sympathy by our criminal justice system and are subsequently sent to prison for life. It happens over and over again and there seems no end to it.
Warren Doody’s play has an elegantly simple structure. In prison, a support group meeting is being held for women who are sentenced to harsh terms as a direct result of killing their abusers. The meeting introduces us to five women and to their stories while a parole hearing for one of them is simultaneously depicted behind them. The action shifts from the meeting to the hearing and back again. The story of Helen Broker, the subject of the parole hearing, becomes the main thread of the play, and very revealing moments from the support group meeting echo her story. The experiences of the five women are not all that different. When the feckless deputy DA asks Helen a question such as, “Why didn’t you just leave?” Helen answers bluntly, and so do the other women, each providing details of their own nightmarish circumstances. It is made clear, again and again, there was nowhere for these women to go. Their lives were so controlled by their abusive mates that there was not a moment in which they could truly escape. If such a window did appear, ever so briefly, they could not escape without abandoning their children. When the DA asks Helen, “Why didn’t you get a restraining order?” The women in the support group dramatically explain an ugly truth: restraining orders aren’t worth much. These abusive men simply ignore them without consequence.
As Helen Broker, Lolita Brinkley delivers a frank yet dignified portrait of a decent woman of intelligence who finds herself trapped in a living hell before she realizes what is happening to her. She tries to escape, but her husband finds her. Time and again she calls the police after being physically assaulted, but they can’t do anything to help her. The deputy District Attorney’s unfazed visage depicts the banality of the system that allows this to continue.
The performances are realistic, understated and without flourishes. These actors are not reaching for applause, they are honestly telling stories of abuse, pain and grief, and the characters they play often give the impression that they are so used to their emotional pain and so resigned to their fates that they don’t care whether the audience is moved or not. The effect is chilling.
Nicholas Meyer, who made the nightmarish television film The Day After (traumatizing the last generation of the Cold War), later wrote of his attraction to that project’s “seductive banality”. The last thing he wanted was for the viewers to be sidetracked from the film’s message by showy acting or beautiful cinematography. In the same way, Life Without Parole does not indulge in anything theatrically innovative. The set consists of a crappy old folding conference table and a few metal folding chairs. The props are nothing more than paper coffee cups and creased old copies of The Courage to Heal clasped by the women in the support group. The only sounds are the actors’ voices and the ongoing drone of prison buzzers and garbled announcements over loudspeakers, ignored by the characters onstage. Yet by the time the play ended many in the audience were in tears.
This play has had a remarkable history. It was inspired by the research of Dr. Elizabeth Dermody Leonard and has had multiple productions in the United States and Canada. It should be seen and heard again and again. This is a terrible story, and because it is so terrible we are obligated to pay attention. How can this dreadful situation change? The play offers no easy answers. But Warren Doody and the artists who crafted this performance seem to agree: the first thing we must do is listen.
Life Without Parole continues its run at Teatro LATEA through August 23 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. For more on FringeNYC shows, click here.
Through August 23 at Teatro LATEA at the Clemente.