Please, Release Me

Based on playwright Elizabeth Gilbert's correspondence with death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham, Release Yearning has major objectives. In the program notes, Gilbert says she wants to begin a "conversation on a subject painfully absent from public discourse." A noble goal; too bad her script is such a bombastic bore.

Part of the problem are the unsavory characters she writes about. Emma (Elaine Anthony) seems, above all, bored and confused. She's getting divorced, doesn't appear to work, and spends her days twiddling her thumbs with her pretentious friends. No wonder she gets wrapped up in one of those jailhouse romances.

Cam (Chris Barron), her guy behind bars, is a charming rogue who apparently set his house on fire then ran outside just in time to watch his children burn up. He claims he's innocent, that a jailhouse snitch ratted him out. But Emma doesn't seem to care much one way or another. She just wants to make the poor guy happy. To that end, she visits, writes and sends lots of psychedelic goodies in the mail (and provides us with a primer on the art of smuggling drugs into a prison cell).

In the meantime, she watches TV into the wee hours with Ignacio (Alexander Marchand-Velasquez), a failed artist whose biggest objective is to move to New York City and find a rich patron. Occasionally Kitty (Edith Pross) comes over to mix tequila sunrises and dispense wisdom. She's one of those been-there, done-that old beauties, who makes her living dealing drugs. And when there's nothing better to do, they all run down to the corner coffee shop, where they waste more time flirting with the cute lesbian waitress, Velvita (Erin Kidwell).

There's not a likable one in the bunch. None of them has any sort of problem, other than their silly self-indulgent lifestyles. The only real excitement occurs during a jailhouse scene in which Cam and his prison buddies Half-Dead (Brett Bland), T-Bone (Marlin Williams) and L.D. (Albert Ransom) stand around arguing about a letter Cam is writing to Emma.

As weak as the script is, first-time director Amy Bruce uses the massive space at DiverseWorks well; she creates one especially fine moment when Cam is put to death. Otherwise, these characters drift along in their tedious lives, doing more harm than good for people like Cameron Todd Willingham.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lee Williams