• Life Without Parole  play (Photo - edgemarcenter.org).

      Life Without Parole play (Photo – edgemarcenter.org).

      Life Without Parole hits violence where It hurts most – at home.

      By Melanie Hooks

      What’s the new popular show amongst men of all ages in Los Angeles? Would you believe: a play that brings to life five women’s stories, all convicted of murdering their abusive male partners? Looking around the full house Saturday night inside Santa Monica’s Edgemar Theater, it would be hard to dispute. The body language was clear. Women sat attentive and engaged, but it was the men who leaned in. Hands holding their chins, elbows on knees, hanging on every detail of how the women became isolated, bullied, terrorized, and finally, desperate enough to fight back in the most final way.

      American Coast Theater Company’s Susan Berkompas could not have foreseen the political climate in which her relaunch of this 2003 original would land, but it is one rife with abusive overtones. In response, many men are engaging in conversations online with their female peers re the pervasiveness of sexual assault, and here, live onstage, are five women sharing the kind of stories that for years have been hidden behind a mostly-gendered wall of shame and denial.

      In fact, Life Without Parole is based on 40+ real stories, recorded as incarcerated women told them to social work researcher Dr. Elizabeth Leonard. Before she passed away, she urged fellow Vanguard University faculty member and playwright Warren Doody to give their stories an actual stage. In 2003, he obliged, and since then, the show has traveled from its university home in Orange County to New York City’s Fringe Festival and now back to California for its West Coast professional premiere. Each time, the story fleshes out and the runtime leans down. This time Berkompas asked Doody to add more showing, less telling, and so Mark Piatelli brings to life the new character of the “Everyman” abuser of each woman. It’s a chilling addition and well worth Doody’s ongoing efforts. It’s the play he’s “been rewriting for 15 years,” he jokes.

      Life Without Parole (Photo - edgemarcenter.org).

      Life Without Parole (Photo – edgemarcenter.org).

      Now at a trim and thoughtful 90 minutes, Life centers its narrative around Helen (Vivian Vanderwerd, a woman now in her 25th year for shooting her estranged husband, as she faces severe parole board officer Kellerman (Brock Joseph). Helen was convicted in the 1980s, long before abused women were permitted to present their abuse in American courts as part of their defense. Incredibly, says Associate Artistic Director James McHale, that practice stood until 2000.  As Helen reveals her story, it becomes more and more evident that her husband Frank was intent on killing her and raping her daughter the moment before she shot him – a clear case of self-defense to everyone except the all-powerful Kellerman. In fact, Kellerman (played with remarkable self-control and judicial diction by Joseph) has his own agenda. He asks Helen again and again for honesty, then refuses to listen to it unless it comes pre-packaged in remorse. Depressingly, his character’s dialogue too is based on actual transcripts, and the crisp, bureaucratic dismissal of Helen’s humanity borders on sociopathic.

      Four other women of varying racial and socioeconomic backgrounds weave their stories throughout Helen’s, all onstage for the entire show. Their tales are most effective when they mirror one another’s growing isolation at the hands of a jealous man, who gradually robs them of their friends, their privacy, their ability to support themselves, their safety (and their children’s), and eventually, their abilities to exist outside the abuser’s control. Many tell tales of attempted escapes and seemingly-inevitable recapture. All four actresses solidly inhabit the haunted women, with Lola Kelly standing out as the self-deprecating Sherie, whose more casual dialogue often masks a lifetime of pain at the hands of an abusive father, followed by her Navy Seal boyfriend who keeps her tied up and wrapped in plastic bags at home when he’s displeased. Some of the other women’s dialogue is hindered by the transcription-style wording still evident in their narratives, though each (Amanda Zarr, Maria Mayanzet, Cyntia Moreno) manages to deliver it as naturally as possible.

      The real power struggles center around Helen, both against her husband Frank and the oppressive Kellerman. The most effective staging of the show actually comes from the dual casting of Mark Piatelli as the abusive men and Helen’s defense lawyer. As the lawyer, Piatelli only gets to speak once, at the very end of the parole hearing, which the actor says is the hardest part of the performance – to not be able to fight for her. Kellerman as the prosecutorial State presence controls the entire proceeding, a role he savors and uses to dominate and demean Helen. As her abuser, Piatelli’s aggressive physicality parallels Kellerman’s occasional outbursts, but his tendency to wrap himself around her while apologizing could be the more terrifying behavior. Wrathful or remorseful, Frank’s only agenda is to control Helen.

      Life Without Parole at American Coast Theater Company (Photo - edgemarcenter.org).

      Life Without Parole at American Coast Theater Company (Photo – edgemarcenter.org).

      Vanderwerd’s background as a police officer serves her well in her spot-on portrayal of a woman who can’t tell her story without being interrupted, counter-accused, or suspected of trying to ‘pull one over’ on her superiors. Kellerman’s ongoing insistence that the word ‘abuse’ is too vague to be admissible highlights the absurdity of his questioning. He only wants Helen to promise that if given the chance to relive the awful day, she would choose to not kill her abuser. He hangs her entire parole promise around it, and the feeling is that of a noose closing in.

      Berkompas’s direction adds in welcome arcs within the storytelling, which allow the audience to absorb the characters’ trauma bit by bit, with space between for their identities outside this one ruling narrative. The simple staging, set up in within just hours, adds to the spare, institutional feeling appropriate to a life in prison, inside and outside the actual institution. Regardless of changing laws, one in three women and one in four men experience domestic violence nationally. Life Without Parole shines a light on their humanity, sparking a conversation we all need to have about why this violent epidemic is happening and how we can all take steps to stop allowing it to operate silently.

      Life Without Parole
      • Written by Warren Doody
      • Directed by Susan K. Berkompas
      Edgemar Theater
      2437 Main Street, Santa Monica, CA 90405

      • Through November 5, 2016
      General admission: $35
      • Buy tickets here.

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