If good theater is, among other things, that which makes you squirm, last night's live drama on ABC, "The Execution of Raymond Graham," was very good theater indeed. The two-hour broadcast, an original play for television by Mel Frohman, was strong stuff as drama and as a passionate but reasoned argument against capital punishment.
Although it was punctuated with pretaped segments, presumably exteriors and some scenes shot at a real prison, most of the big dramatic scenes were apparently live, staged in studios in Toronto. The word "live" has come to mean almost nothing in the age of "live on tape," but ABC's earnest experiment proved again that one does get an extra measure of immediacy and impact from live, even just largely live, performances. "Execution" could not have carried precisely the same weight and tension if it had been filmed over several days and edited into a tidy slickness.
The story of the last two hours in the life of a convicted killer was told in a slightly telescoped version of real time. When an actor noted that a prison clock read "9:24, right on the button," that's what time it really was. The best dramas of TV's golden age almost all embellished the artifice of theater with the jagged edge of journalism. This one added the urgency of an advocacy position to the mix and the result was cumulatively gripping and disturbing in all the ways it wanted to be.
Jeff Fahey gave a spellbinding performance as Graham, the 28-year-old misfit who had spent 11 years in jails, five on death row, and three times had seen his death sentence stayed near the last moment. But not this time. Fahey was able to leap the electronic barrier of television transmission and make vital emotional connections with the viewer. It was a particularly enviable feat since he was often also photographed through the bars of his cell.
The execution itself was depicted in fairly graphic detail; this was death by lethal injection, with the victim strapped to an operating table while witnesses watched through bars. The execution was perhaps not the most wrenching scene, though. This came earlier, when the convicted man had to say goodbye to his mother and sister over the telephone.
The mother was played with superb control by Kate Reid, so memorable earlier this season as Mrs. Willy Loman on CBS' "Death of a Salesman." Laurie Metcalf, as the sister, had a particularly fine moment, because this was an eleventh-hour reconciliation between siblings who had heretofore been more or less continually at odds. He had referred to her as "a real bitch" and she had called him "a mean little bastard." Came the moment of truth, and both made their heartfelt, futile apologies. It seemed depressingly plausible.
The action followed parallel lines: the condemned man's final words and actions, the vigil kept by his mother, sister and brother, and that kept by the family of his victim. Josef Sommer, Lois Smith and Michael Dolan played the father, mother and brother of Kevin Neal, the 17-year-old boy Graham shot and killed during a convenience store holdup six years before. The robbery netted the thief $67.
How well did the play work as a protest against capital punishment? Writer Frohman stacked the deck by making Raymond Graham anything but what we think of as the wanton criminal type. The killing occurred in "panic," not as a premeditated act, it was stated during the play, and others who had committed more vicious crimes had received life sentences or less. The capriciousness, not so much the barbarity, of capital punishment was criticized. Lawyers cannot get a stay of execution because the governor (of the unnamed state) has taken a public stand in favor of the death penalty. Graham must die in part because it is politically expedient.
Fairly sophisticated and subtly persuasive -- at least compared with some of the great rabble-rouser social-issue films of Hollywood's past -- "Execution" worked as drama as well as it worked as tract, and that's really the important thing.
As directed by Daniel Petrie, the play moved along with grim deliberation and no wasted motion. The absence of a musical score contributed to a documentary sensibility. Producer David W. Rintels, who's always had an appetite for The Big Issues, may have angered those who favor capital punishment with this production, but he certainly can't have angered those who advocate stronger, more intelligent, more relevant television fare.
"The Execution of Raymond Graham" was the first live drama to be seen on ABC in 25 years. One can hope it won't be 25 years until the next one. All three networks, but perhaps especially ABC, like to send viewers off to bed undisturbed and unruffled -- just lulled into a dopey somnolence. Last night, ABC didn't do that. It went, really rather bravely, to the other extreme, and damn but it felt good to feel so bad.