Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
August 8, 2008
I'm not certain whether Staughton Lynd's play Lucasville succeeds in its mission, mainly because I'm not certain what Lynd wanted to do. If he wanted to inform theatergoers about the particulars of this 1993 Ohio prison uprising, he certainly did so—I hadn't even heard of the uprising before attending, but now know a good deal about the prisoners' demands and the escalation of events. [Note: There's a good brief account of the uprising, based on Lynd's 2005 book about the event, here.] If he wanted to create an actual play, he was less successful, as he has adapted much of it from transcripts of phone conversations and interviews—at times at the expense of plot. If he wished to highlight George Skatzes, an inmate who served as the prisoners' spokesperson, he absolutely did, as the bulk of the action deals with Skatzes. But if he wished to highlight the other four inmates also convicted as ringleaders of the uprising, he fares less well, as the others only get the opportunity for one or two statements.
I suspect Lynd was trying to do all of these things. Thus the show is informative, but dramatically murky. At the very beginning, we are introduced to "The Lucasville Five," a group of inmates held responsible for the death of the one guard and the nine inmates killed during the uprising. After the five describe the roots of the conflict, we are plunged into the uprising proper—dispatched quickly with a blackout and a lot of shouting—nd soon Skatzes (Sam Perry, the ensemble's strongest actor) steps forward as a leader and spokesperson. Much of the rest of the play then becomes Skatzes's, as it focuses on his ongoing discussions with the State-appointed hostage negotiator (a delightfully unctuous Greg Mocker). Occasionally Lynd introduces other voices—National Guard members reviewing orders, statements from the guards held hostage, discussions between inmates—but everyone else is background for Skatzes. Including the other four members of The Lucasville Five, which left me wondering why we'd met them.
The rest of the Five don't return until the end, at their trial for the murder of the men killed during the uprising. Lynd gives each of the other four a chance to recite the testimony made during the actual sentencing—but not Skatzes. Instead, a woman in the audience rises and comes to the stage—Jackie Bowers, the real Skatzes's sister, playing herself. During the actual trial, she explains, she was not permitted to make a statement on her brother's behalf, so she will do so now. While the actual text of her statement is fairly ordinary, the fact that it is the real Jackie Bowers doing so—and the fact that she is frequently visibly overcome while speaking—makes it a gripping moment.
But a collection of gripping moments don't make a play. The cast and crew, supported by the Ohio ACLU, seem to be relying on the weight of the information itself to sway the audience, as they certainly do give a lot of it (the program is a whopping 32 pages, and contains several pages of background information and statements from the ACLU and copies of letters between inmates as well as the cast bios). But honing the material down into a more cohesive single story could potentially have made for an even more powerful piece of theatre.