“Dead Man Walking” promises an intense experience

Buies Creek, N.C.-Dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt, convicted killer Elmo Patrick Sonnier is led to his death by lethal injection. Prior to his execution, a compelling relationship develops between Sonnier and spiritual mentor Sister Helen Prejean. “Dead Man Walking,” explores Sonnier’s crime, execution and friendship with Prejean in a brutally honest, sometimes horrifying, sometimes uplifting play that has become a powerful argument against capital punishment. The Campbell University Theatre Arts Department will present “Dead Man Walking” Friday and Saturday, April 17-18 and Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 23-25, at 8 p.m. in the Ellis Theatre of the Taylor Bott Rogers Fine Arts Center. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Campbell University Box Office at 893.1509 or online by going to the Campbell Web site at https://www.campbell.edu.

Director Keith Hight said the play marks a considerable departure for Campbell’s Theatre Arts Department.

“This play is very intense. It’s not for the weak of heart,” said Hight. “It’s not a ‘Voice of the Prairie’ or a ‘Pippin.’ I want to bring the issue of capital punishment to the forefront so I haven’t driven the play in one direction or the other. I want the audience to deal with the paradox of capital punishment. We don’t talk about it enough. Hopefully by the end of the play, the audience will.”

Based on a double homicide in St. Martin Parish, La., in 1977, “Dead Man Walking” is the story of brothers Elmo and Eddie Sonnier who kidnapped a high school age couple from a lover’s lane. Posing as policemen, the brothers handcuffed the victims and drove them to a remote oilfield. David LeBlanc was taken into the woods and handcuffed to a tree, while his fiancé, Loretta Bourque, was taken a short distance away and raped by the defendants. Deciding it would be to dangerous to leave the victims alive, the brothers shot them both three times at close range in the back of the head.

Prejean’s book on the murders and subsequent execution of Elmo Sonnier, Eddie Sonnier received two life sentences, became an immediate bestseller and a movie based on the book was released in 1995 starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. During Prejean’s relationship with Elmo Sonnier, the defendant expressed remorse and a yearning for spiritual forgiveness. His last words to the victims’ fathers on his way to be executed were, “I can understand the way you feel. I have no hatred in my heart. As I leave this world, I ask God to forgive me for what I did.”

Employing a minimalist set and making the audience part of the action by seating them onstage, Hight enhances the drama by focusing the audience’s attention on the players. Images projected onto two drop-down screens and the set’s white backdrops intersperse the past with the present. Hight even filmed various scenes on location at a real prison.

“You hear his crime. You see his crime. That’s very compelling,” Hight said. “It is a really powerful show.”

The cast of “Dead Man Walking” features senior April Viverette as Sister Helen Prejean; junior Matt Coleman as the defendant Matthew Poncelet; sophomore Amy Broderick as Prejean’s roommate, Sister Colleen; senior Tabitha Silver as defense attorney Hillary Baber, junior Jessi Ferguson as the defendant’s mother Lucille Poncelet and sophomore Jonathan Fitts, junior Eliana Kurzum, senior Roy Mills, and senior Jami Howard as the victims’ parents.

Tickets prices are $3 for students and senior citizens and $7 general admission. Only 85 seats are available.

Photo Copy: Jessi Ferguson, left, confronts April Viverette in a scene from Campbell University’s upcoming drama “Dead Man Walking.”