“Why do you stay with him if he beats you?” The answer, “I was afraid to leave,” is seldom understood in its fullness. Abuse and battery have their roots in psychological and emotional childhood traumas. The individuals involved play a “dance of wits and passions” that are illogical to the “objective” observer but very sound to the participants. It is only when the abuse escalates to a “point of no return” that someone in the dance attempts closure. Oftentimes, as in Life Without Parole, directed by Jessica Dermody an offering at NYC The Fringe Festival, the dance is to the death and the survivor is left with an aftermath that is as hellish as the abusive situation they longed to quit. Life Without Parole is a chilling work constructed around the testimonies of battered women who killed their partners in self-defense and who were tried and convicted for murder. The play takes place in 1999, at the California Institution for Women at Chino. The women are serving long prison terms, some without the hope of being paroled. The framework of the play centers around Helen Broker’s (a fine performance by Lolita Brinkley) parole hearing and follows her questioning by the head of the parole committee Joseph Kellerman (a determined and unyielding John Moss), and others (Lil Malnich, Mark Lyons). These members of the committee attempt to “understand” the reasons for Helen Broker’s actions by piecing together her background, the history of her relationship with her husband, the responses of the individuals who were her friends and family. With their understanding and review of the convict’s defense and plea they will determine whether or not she is ready to return to the community or is a hazard and danger to the public.
Helen Broker characterizes her relationship with her husband and answers the questions for the committee with details that fit the typical battered relationship from beginning until “death did they part.” The excellence of this production is not only in the fine acting and direction, it is also in how playwright Warren Doody informed the play’s construction. Doody parallels Helen Broker’s descriptions with the comments of other women who have been through similar experiences with their partners, spouses, or boyfriends. These women are also serving long prison terms. Charlotte Ivory (Anne Bobby), Sherie Von Kemp (Karah Gravatt), Grace Klondike (Annette Hudrienne D. Williams), punctuate Brokers’ commentary with their own testimonies, sharing and giving voice to their stories. Their anguish reverberates and echos Helen Broker’s ordeal. Their living hell had remained secret and hidden from friends and family and even hidden from their own consciousness until they could no longer deny to themselves what was happening.
The production is a moment to moment ride that is heartfelt and spellbinding as we realize the similarity of abuse and commonality of response amongst the women. Through their combined testimonies we begin to see how and why one might endure such soul stripping while attempting to change a significant other to no avail. The play outlines segments of these women’s relationships beginning with Helen Broker then swiftly jumping to the various women. One by one, they intermingle their stories with Helen’s. Together all of their comments are lines of color that create a grotesque mosaic allowing us to visualize how each of the women’s relationships devolved into a pernicious destruction from which they grew desperate to escape, but were too paralyzed to effectively construct a positive way out. For each the arc of the relationship coheres to a pattern: first, is the loveliness of the romance, seduction and coupling, where the “beloved” can only see the perfection of the “loved,” his generosity, his handsomeness, his charm and humor. Next is the marriage and harbingers of rage as more of the identity of the “beloved” is subsumed into the ego of the “loved” and her former life is jettisoned at the will of the “loved.” During this time the “beloved” is increasingly demeaned, controlled through guilt and isolated. The last segment is the evolving mental and physical torture as the unpredictable painful acts of the “loved” escalate in violence and frequency against the “beloved.” These acts spill out to encompass any children involved in the union.
As the women share their experiences we understand the pain, the fear, the guilt and, above all, the shame: they have allowed themselves to sustain terrible abuse, shrinking their own self-hood and identity for the sake of “their man.” This shame must be acknowledged and faced if these women are ever to survive; they must express the will to live, a will which their spouses and or partners are attempting to bludgeon and extinguish. Thus, the playwright unmasks the nature of how these particular women are brought to a valley of decision. Will they acknowledge their shame in a supreme act of violence and birth their own identity apart from their parasitic partner? Or will they sacrifice their lives and identities for him, allowing their partner to take their lives? These women, led by Helen Broker, share how they decided to defend themselves in an act mirroring the violence they have accepted and internalized in shame. It is a decision which they must pay for and which incurs another phase of abuse and torment in prison. Doody reveals that it is only when Broker and the women begin to give voice to their shame and anguish that they begin to birth a separate identity and empower themselves. Only by sharing their experiences with their battered sisters will they gradually be free within. Whether they will ever gain their freedom from prison and be paroled is a question for a justice system which simplistically views their actions with little comprehension. By revealing how these women have elected to act in violence, the playwright shines a spotlight of a subject still “swept under the rug,” even though the culture has acknowledged battery exists and not just battery of women, but of men also. It is a vital issue and Doody’s work is impressive in reminding us of the importance of self-hood, empowerment and expression in forestalling even the beginnings of such degenerative relationships which can only end in a network of torment and self-harm. [amazon asin= 0985471867&template=iframe image]