“Cool Hand Luke” at 59E59 Theaters (Closed Sunday March 31st, 2015)

May 20, 2015 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written by Donn Pearce and Adapted for the Stage by Emma Reeves
Directed by Joe Tantalo
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“No more my Lord/No more my Lord/Lord, I’ll never turn back/No more my Lord” (Traditional American Spiritual, Composed for Choir by R. Nathaniel Dett)

What matters about “Cool Hand Luke” is the corpus of enduring questions Donn Pearce’s rich text raises and what matters about Emma Reeves’ stage adaptation of the 1965 novel is whether or not those enduring questions transfer from Pearce’s rich word to the engaging adaptation of the novel currently running at 59E59 Theaters. On the surface, “Cool Hand Luke” is about the troubled Luke Jackson (played with the perfect balance of grit and vulnerability by Lawrence Jansen), the war veteran who takes the tops off parking meters to make ends meet and it might appear this is the story of a specific man against the broken and unjust system he encounters. However, when one strips away issues of sexual status, age, and race, “Cool Hand Luke” is ultimately an extended metaphor (an allegory) for every person’s struggle with systems that violate rather than free the human spirit. The play effectively raises rich and deep questions through this extended metaphor.

“Cool Hand Luke” raises important questions that transcend the text. How well does America care for its war veterans? How effective is the justice system at rehabilitating convicted criminals? The engaging play raises even more rich and deep questions like: “What is forgiveness?” Is faith in a superior being necessary? Do political, economic, and education systems “enslave” participants? Are systems more interested in conformity (“getting the mind right”) or creativity? Is it possible to escape oppression? Is there no other world but the world we experience in the present? Does that world define us? When Luke is captured and returned to prison after a successful escape, his mates ask him to tell them “the way it was supposed to be.” Luke replies, “Cain’t help ya fellas. Guess there is no other world but this.”

When is enough oppression enough? This is perhaps the most compelling rich question raised by “Cool Hand Luke” and the question continues to be raised by those living on the fringes of “mainstream” and privileged society. This question often explodes with moral ambiguity, the kind of ambiguity expressed by Luke, “Anything I do, no matter how I do it, it’s all wrong. An’ you know what? By now, I don’t even know myself what’s wrong and what ain’t.”

Under Joe Tantalo’s direction, Mr. Jansen and the ensemble cast of “Cool Hand Luke” effectively portray characters locked in systems of oppression – as the oppressed and as the oppressors – with authenticity and exuberant believability. The members of the chain gang, Luke’s fellow inmates, attempt to “play a cool hand” in the game with the prison bosses and those bosses deal hard blows to keep the inmates from getting the upper hand.

The Godlight Theatre Company’s commitment to creating original adaptations of modern classical literature is to be commended and should be supported by the theatergoing audience. “Cool Hand Luke” at 59E59 Theaters is clear evidence of the success of this company’s brave mission.