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Lorilei article from October 2003

A mother's grace under extreme duress.

Melbourne actor Anna Galvin has worked in London and Los Angeles for the past decade but the power of a new play about the death penalty in the United States made her feel sick when she read it.

"The tragedy just hit me. I wondered how I could find the stamina to perform it with an audience close by," she says.

Galvin is playing the lead in Lorilei - A Meditation on Loss by Tom Wright, a dramatisation of a woman's attempt to save the killer of her six-year-old son from the death penalty. "I have always been opposed to the death penalty," Galvin says. "But you always wonder how you would feel about it if someone you loved was murdered."

Lorilei is the second death-row play by Wright and the director, Nick Harrington, who took the critically acclaimed This is a True Story from La Mama to London in 2001.

The production, which featured Wright as a death-row inmate with an IQ of just 54, was highly praised by the Guardian newspaper and Time Out magazine.

But Harrington says the spur for the new show was the opportunity to explore the issues from a fresh angle, using interviews and court transcripts. "This is from the perspective of someone who suffered grievously when her 6-year-old son was murdered, (who) rose above the barbarism of the death penalty," he says.

Harrington, who worked as a volunteer lawyer at an anti-death penalty centre in New Orleans five years ago, met Ricky Langley, the man convicted of the crime, when he was on death row. "I spent a couple of hours with him in jail on the same trip that I received the diary that became the basis for True Story."

He had no intention of dramatising the case, but Langley won an appeal on a technicality and a re-trial was held earlier this year. The play unfolds as a mystery, with the audience uncertain of the result until the conclusion.

Harrington was impressed by the stand taken by the boy's mother, Lorilei, who asked that her full name be withheld. "She didn't have to get involved, and, after taking a stand, she received real heat from the district-attorney prosecuting the case and even from members of her own family."

Lorilei had to travel about 1500 kilometres from South Carolina, where she moved after the murder, to attend court proceedings in Louisiana, but the district-attorney refused to pay her a living allowance until ordered by the presiding judge.

"She wasn't playing the expected role as the victim's mother," he says. "As a result, she believes the only person who has supported her is her 11-year-old son." But the woman's stand even confused Langley's defence lawyers, who claimed in a submission that she had forgiven him for the murder.

"That wasn't true. She has never forgiven him, but she does not believe in the death penalty. She believes in grace and doesn't want his life taken in her son's name," he says. "What she does say is that her son would have forgiven him."

Lorilei blames the system for releasing Langley into the community after an earlier conviction, even though he warned he was not in control of his impulses.

When he killed the boy, he believed he was killing a dead brother whom he claimed was ordering him to commit evil deeds. Harrington says Lorilei went on a binge of drugs and alcohol after the murder in New Orleans in 1992; she was pregnant with her 2nd son.

The Bible featured in her rehabilitation therapy but Harrington says he is not sure how religious she is.

"God hangs in the air, as he does in a lot of southern stories," Harrington says. "But I think she believes in every person's right to be given an opportunity to be redeemed."

Galvin, who studied drama in Oxford after graduating from Melbourne University, was visiting her family when Harrington showed her the script. Most of her previous work was in television series such as The Sentinel, and while she was intimidated by the power of the script, she welcomed the chance to return to the theatre.

"Los Angeles nearly killed my passion for acting," she says. "The quality of a lot of television scripts is soul-destroying." She has concentrated on getting Lorilei's accent right, after speaking to her on the phone. "Her tenacity is amazing, and I don't want anything to get in the way of people appreciating that," she says. "She wasn't lucky enough to have a huge education and she is not super articulate but she showed amazing courage."

Lorilei is keen to see the production but it is organised on a non-profit basis so can't cover the air fare to bring her to Australia.

"But True Story toured to London and I would love to take Lorilei to North America where it would be possible for her to see the show," Galvin says.

When the season ends, she intends to return to the scripts she is working on - one a romantic comedy she hopes will be a money spinner, and the other an historical drama she has been researching for 5 years.

"I would love to see it developed as a co-production with Australia because I would love to get back here with a professional base," she says.

Lorilei opens at La Mama tonight and runs until November 9. Internationally-renowned human rights lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, will answer audience questions after tomorrow's show and on Friday.

Source: The Age--Australia, October 2003


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