Compelling characters and complex questions about crime and punishment are at the heart of playwright Eduardo Ivan Lopez’s latest play, Natural Life, at the T. Schreiber Studio.
Like many of Lopez’s plays (Ribbon Creek, The Legend of Sam’s Point, Barth’s Dilemma), Natural Life draws inspiration from true stories and historical facts. Claire McGreely (Holly Heiser) has spent the majority of her adult life in prison, and now awaits execution for the murder of her husband, Virgil (Joseph D. Giardina).
In an effort to set the record straight before her death, Claire contacts network news anchorwoman Rita Hathaway (Anna Holbrook) and offers her an exclusive interview as well as the revelation that she is ending her quest for an appeal. Claire divulges to Rita that she wants to die.
But as Rita continues to speak with Claire and learns about her troubled past in flashbacks, the straight-shooting journalist’s preconceived notions about justice come into question. Jake Turner’s skilled direction keeps the action moving swiftly and clearly through the time jumps as Claire’s difficult childhood becomes achingly apparent. Sexually abused by her uncle from the age of 5, Claire was an alcoholic by age 11 and a prostitute by 14. The abuse continued when she married Virgil. Raised by her grandmother (Noelle McGrath), Claire received advice, she says, like “sex was all that men wanted. And if I was going to lie down with them, I should always get something in return.” It becomes clear that Claire is a victim as well as a killer.
Rita voices her growing belief that perhaps Claire doesn’t deserve to die to Gov. Ben Dushane (Bob Rogerson), with whom Claire’s fate ultimately lies. But the audience is confronted with the fact that a life in prison may be a more severe punishment for Claire, who explains, "My choice is death by slow deterioration or death by lethal injection, fast and, hopefully, painless. To die quickly or slowly … For all intents and purposes, my life is over."
Heiser’s portrayal of Claire McGreely is powerful and nuanced. She expertly crafts a character that has many sides and leaves no doubt that her case is not a simple one of black-and-white murder. Even more impressive is Holbrook, who creates an instantly likable and admirable character in Rita Hathaway. Her Rita looks as if she could star in a popular television series—impressively smart, driven, tactful and yet endearingly human.
The cast is rounded out by television station executive Dan Coleman (Don Carter) and prison guard Harris (Joseph Calderone). Carter provides the only comic relief throughout the play with his portrayal of a pompous, deceptive (“Well, technically, I guess I lied”) businessman with whom Hathaway must contend. The seven-person cast remains on stage throughout the performance, seated in a row of chairs behind the action, reminiscent of a jury—judging Claire’s every move.
Helping clarify the flashbacks are locations and dates of the action, displayed on screens built into the walls of an otherwise understated set by Pei-Wen Huang-Shea. The screens serve multiple purposes throughout the show thanks to sound and video design by Andy Evan Cohen. They don’t just set scenes but serve as prison surveillance cameras, office videogames for Coleman, and jail-cell television for Claire.
The intimate space, raw performances, and impressive script make for many emotional moments. The first act starts off grippingly at the climax of the story before circling back to show why Claire McGreely ended up pointing a gun at her husband.
Natural Life is thought-provoking and commanding. The subject matter is timely, and fans of recent pop-culture phenomena such as Making a Murderer, Serial and The Newsroom are likely to be riveted by this exploration of the justice system, the prison system, guilt and the media.
Natural Life plays at the T. Schreiber Studio for Theatre & Film (151 West 26th St., 7th Floor) through April 2. Tickets may be purchased for $20 general admission by calling the box office at 212-352-3101 or online at www.tschreiber.org. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on March 23 and 30.