Performing Arts: Theater
May 27, 2015
“Wherever you go and whatever you do. Always play a real cool hand." A motto the chain gang rebel, war veteran, parking meter decapitator known as Cool Hand Luke honored until his murder in a church. With the rise of prison reform advocacy, Godlight Theatre Company’s dramatic production at 59E59 of Emma Reeves’ stage adaptation of Donn Pearce’s novel “Cool Hand Luke” is timely. When Paul Newman played Luke in the 1967 feature film, his non-conformist character spoke to 60s protesters. Now though, Luke’s stubborn stance seems fatalistic, tragic; another case that heralds the long overdue necessity to change our legal and penal system. Luke entered prison with only a two-year sentence for destroying 2 lines of parking meters. With each capture, his sentence extends, until he defiantly escapes again despite the warnings that a third capture would mean summary execution.

Certainly, the ax throwing choreography for the chain gang, the single bulb, center ceiling lighting (Maruti Evans), thunderous percussion (Ien Denio) that punctuate each scene are all effective. Reeves’ screenplay has a marvelous sparseness with a rhythmic play between performers led by Lawrence Jansen who plays Luke with a sexy swagger. Julia Torres injects some spirituality into this sad, male story by singing a gospel tune descending and later ascending the stairs of 59E59’s raked audience. Luke’s mother (Kristine Doelling) appears briefly to beg that Luke “take some time out once in a while for the Lord.” Luke yells up high “C’mon Lord, git on out here an’ show yourself, don’t be shy there! Well Maw, the Lord’s sure doin’ a good job a hidin’.” His Maw leaves and, we learn by a read telegram, soon dies, without Luke shedding a tear.

The casting excellent, but what this production needs is a turning point, some change of heart or behavior in one of the characters, or some hint of humanity dawning in the prison guards. After much suspense whether Luke can hold to his bet that he can eat 50 eggs in an hour, when he does consume them, nothing happens. And nothing happens when he is dragged back into jail after a brief flight to New Orleans. Just more stories among the mates. And it’s back to the ditch they go, with more beatings and a bit less protest to follow.

Director Joe Tantalo has been Artistic Director of Goodnight Theatre Company since 1994. He presented this production at Kingsborough in Brooklyn this past March. EYE ON THE ARTS, NY - Deirdre Towers

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