By William Wolf

COOL HAND LUKE  Send This Review to a Friend

You may have seen the 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke” that starred Paul Newman as a rebellious convict in a Southern chain gang. I looked up my review at the time and while praising the gritty tale of mistreatment of prisoners, I also found that the result was also somewhat slick and removed from reality.

There is nothing removed from reality about this Godlight Theatre Company staging, based on the original source, Donn Pearce’s novel, adapted by Emma Reeves into a play unompromisingly directed by Joe Tantalo. The stage is alive with convict sweat, cruelty by brutal overseers, prisoner relationships, the need for a hero and the effort of Luke Jackson to flaunt his dignity and individualism in a situation where that will not be tolerated.

The story comes through with full passion as a result of its superb cast and excellent staging in a small space. The effect is constantly as gripping as it is sad and unsettling.

Lawrence Jansen as the central character, Luke Jackson, gives a performance that ranks high among recent dramatic achievements by a leading actor. His speeches referring to his regret at all the killing that he had to do as a soldier in the past reveal Luke’s inner sensitivity and disillusionment while his bravado communicates his determination not to be broken as he does time for a minor crime of taking money from parking meters. He gains the respect of other prisoners, but he gets increasingly in trouble for his escapes when he is captured and returned to be beaten and thrust into solitary, known as “the box.”

The play juxtaposes the human spirit versus the cruelty of a prison system with sadistic personnel who enjoy breaking someone in their charge. Even without selective punishment, the men work hard digging ditches until they look ready to drop. All of this is realistically and almost ritualistically conveyed in this imaginative staging without an intermission.

The entire cast is top notch, including Kristina Doelling as Luke’s mother. The result is a memorable adaptation of Donn Pearc’s novel into compelling theater. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed May 8, 2015.


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