Premiering on the East Coast, Vanguard University professor Warren Doody’s play, “Life Without Parole”, performed at the New York International Fringe Festival for three weeks in August.
With multiple festival showings, “Life Without Parole” received positive reviews from various publications. One publication, “The Baffler”, an online art and criticism magazine headquartered in Massachusetts, featured an article summarizing the play’s plot and its role in discussing the issue of domestic violence. In her review, Elaine Yu wrote, “The criminal justice system has never been fully prepared to handle cases of domestic abuse, nor is it a pioneer of interventions any more transformative than prison time, which is precisely what Life Without Parole demonstrates.” In another review, Roark Littlefield, writing for “Stage Buddy,” a New York based theater magazine, wrote that “Life Without Parole” is “as powerful as any new play I have seen in years.”
Written in 2003, “Life Without Parole” is Doody’s adaptation of Dr. Elizabeth Dermody Leonard’s research on women incarcerated for killing their abusive partner. Dr. Leonard, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Vanguard before retiring in 2011, died earlier this year. The Fringe Festival’s “Life Without Parole” performances were dedicated to her memory and work .
Through her research, Dr. Leonard compiled an analysis filled with testimonies from incarcerated women she interviewed at the California Institution for Women at Chino. Her book, “Convicted Survivors: The Imprisonment of Battered Women Who Kill”, provided the inspiration, content and many of the monologues in “Life Without Parole.”
In 2001, following the last faculty meeting of the academic year, Dr. Leonard approached Professor Doody to see if he would be interested in making her book into a play. “I almost fell out of my chair,” Professor Doody said. He was thrilled by the offer and excited to invest his time in something so meaningful. Dr. Leonard assured Doody that she would not interfere with his creative process. “She was true to her word; by far the best collaborator I’ve ever had,” he added.
Since its first staged reading in 2003 at Northern Arizona University, the play has appeared on many stages and in many settings. In 2008, Vanguard’s department of theatre arts chair, Susan K. Berkompas, directed performances at Vanguard’s Lyceum Theater and the California Institution for Women at Chino. Under her direction, the play was selected in 2009 as a finalist for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
In January 2014, it made the coast-to-coast jump from California to New York and appeared at the Winterfest play festival at Manhattan Repertory Theatre. Facilitated by Vanguard theater alumna Karah Gravatt ’11, the East Coast premiere sold out every show. Gravatt, who played one of the “convicted survivors” in the Vanguard production, contacted Doody a couple of years ago about pitching “Life Without Parole” to theater groups, directors and producers. With his blessing, she submitted the play first to the Manhattan Repertory Theatre’s festival, then to the New York International Fringe Festival. Gravatt, who performed in both runs, also served as the co-producer for the Fringe Festival production.
Reflecting on the play’s journey, Professor Doody said that when Dr. Leonard had first presented him with the adaptation project, he never would have imagined that 13 years later, he would be discussing its success in an interview. “It was a cause I was ready to fight for, take up and run with,” he said. “Domestic violence is an issue that is often swept under the rug because its victims end up feeling ashamed, which is so backwards.” Excited about the play’s growing reach and looking to its future, Professor Doody said, “I think it’s got another level to get to, and I believe it will get there.”
To learn more about “Life Without Parole”, visit the play’s website by clicking here.