By Bradley Rohlf
“Run-On Sentence” is a perspective-altering piece, skillfully assembled by Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE).
Prison Performing Arts commissioned playwright Stacie Lents to write a piece as a part of their New Plays Initiative. She spent two weeks with 16 women at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Mo. Over the 65-hour workshop in the summer of 2016, she worked with and interviewed the prisoners. Their artistry and stories informed this fictionalization of day-to-day life in prison.
The story is framed by Mel, played by Taleesha Caturah, who is serving a life sentence as justice for her crime. Prison life has become her norm, so she is the perfect character to guide us through this world.
We then meet her cellmates Bug (Wendy Renée Greenwood), Giant (Jamie McKittrick), and Miss Alice (Margeau Baue Steinau). They are all overseen by the young Officer Wallace (Kristen Strom), a newer C.O. who is struggling to fit in to her position of authority over the much more experienced inmates.
Meanwhile, Mary, a new inmate, played by Bess Moynihan, doesn’t seem to fit the typical inmate mold. She has a terminal degree and a father who pays her legal expenses. Nonetheless, she has been sentenced to serve five years in prison.
The nervous, yet slightly impulsive Mary makes several missteps while adjusting to prison life. She remarks that everyone around her in orientation seemed to understand the process while she did not. Mel assures her it is because most of them have been through it before.
Eventually new friendships are made and others are strained. As much as the characters make clear that this is not summer camp or the Girl Scouts, it is hard to deny some similarities in the relationships that are formed through constant immediate proximity.
Some character archetypes are present on the surface, but just enough to acclimate the audience. They are soon stripped away to reveal wholly human individuals with nuanced relationships and feelings. There is not an ounce of caricature in any of these performances.
Both Greenwood and Caturah present a tough exterior, likely developed as a survival skill in prison, but each have emotional and personal needs.
McKittrick gives an accurate and compassionate portrayal of Giant, a character who has some level of mental or developmental disability, still capable of daily responsibilities, but emotionally volatile and occasionally unable to fully recognize the feelings of others.
This play reveals the people behind the dehumanizing label of inmate. These women are mothers, daughters, and grandmothers – not just in the generic sense, but we learn about their individual relationships with family on the outside.
In addition to their incarceration, they must deal with the pain of estrangement from family, not knowing their children, and not being there to care for parents in failing health.
The narrative launches some greater societal questions. How do we measure a prisoner’s debt to society? And how is that debt repaid? Is time spent incarcerated a measure of justice served? What constitutes cruel and unusual punishment? And if a punishment becomes usual, does that make it any less cruel?
SATE always impresses, and director Rachel Tibbetts has assembled a team that reinforces this reputation.
The full company understands how to shape a narrative for stage, and make use of their resources to their full potential.
Dominick Ehling’s lighting design and Ellie Schwetye’s sound design provide clear transitions and settings, providing an appropriate tone.
Tibbetts designed the prison uniforms, and Moynihan also designed the set pieces of plain, stark bunks and utilitarian lockers and chairs.
SATE presents “Run-On Sentence” from June 6 – 17, with Wednesday – Sunday, June 13, 14, 16, and 17 at 8 p.m. at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive. For more information, visit www.slightlyoff.org or email email@example.com