BWW Review: The Compassionate Life of John Howard Shines THE PRISONER'S FRIEND at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church
"The Prisoner's Friend" is a touching original play about one of the champions of prison reforms, John Howard. The historical plot is easy to follow and holds many moments that bring out the tears and belly laughter. David W. Chapman's original story takes creative liberties and dives into the last days of noted 18th-century English social reformer and humanitarian John Howard. In 1841 the Alabama Baptist State Convention honored his legacy in naming their new college for men after him. In 1965 Howard College was renamed Samford University. Chapman is no stranger to Howard's life and legacy for he is a Professor of English and served as dean of the Howard College of Arts and Sciences at Samford University. He has written many publications on John Howard's life.
"The Prisoner's Friend" begins in January 1790 while Howard (Jesse Bates) was traveling to military hospitals overseas. In this leg of his journey, Howard comes to reside with Russian Admiral Preistman (Dennis Samsom) and Lady Preistman (Susan Owens).As the Admiral and Howard get acquainted, the chapters in Howard's history open in revealing flashbacks that expose the complexities that have steered his motivations in life. The neglect of his son becomes like a leaking facet of memories. That evening Howard is asked to give aid to a sickly child in the distant neighboring village. He agrees and arrives and is met with sass from the housekeeper Tasha (Donna Littlepage). Young Katarina (Rachael Bass) is horribly ill. As they talk she shines with a light that inspires Howard. Deciding to ride through the night to return to the Admiral's home proved to be an ill-fated choice. The after effects of riding horseback through the frigid Russian winter brought dire consequences to Howard's life.
The characters, storytelling elements, and framework carry similar notes found in classic Frank Capra films. The talented cast delivers wonderfully enduring performances. The simplicity of "The Prisoner's Friend" is a highlight. Directors Jonathan Fuller and Julie Steward (also a Professor of English at Samford) give credit to the term "Less is more." Free from elaborate sets and fluff, the production's heart is allowed to beat uninhibited with minimal props with use of crisp period costumes. The story is easy to follow and the characters are written and portrayed in a way that connects as if you know these people.
Jesse Bates brings much warmth to the role of John Howard. This is a man with many layers. Bates draws many emotional moments. Rachael Bass provides a glowingly touching performance of the sickly Katarina. She just melts your heart with her commitment to the role. Dennis Samsom delivers a stern but wise Admiral Preistman. Susan Owens radiates a wonderfully endearing kindness in the role of sweet Lady Preistman. Donna Littlepage gives a comically saucy bite to the protective housemaid Tasha. Finn Steward weaves strong and distinct character work into a wonderful tapestry of being multiple characters. His noticeable fluidity stands out.
Sadly this production is only a very limited run. Tickets are free for tonight's final performance. (Thursday April 4th) at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church at 7 pm.
The Prisoner's Friend
By David W. Chapman
Directed by Jonathan Fuller and Julie Steward
John Howard - Jesse Bates
Admiral Preistman - Dennis Samsom
Tom / Yuri / Howard's Father/ Jack - Finn Steward
Tasha - Donna Littlepage
Katarina - Rachael Bass
Thursday April 4 - 7pm
Dawson Memorial Baptist Church
114 Oxmoor Rd, Birmingham, AL 35209
Admission is free