By Joe Pinchot
YOUNGSTOWN — Before he started work on his latest acting role, Sam Perry assumed that most people were in favor of the death penalty.
“I’m finding out, talking to more and more people, that’s not the case,” said the Hermitage amateur actor with an extensive resume of regional acting credits.
Perry is playing a convicted killer in “Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising,” which will be performed Sunday in Youngstown.
In meeting people who have seen the show, Perry has found that some he would expect to support the death penalty, including politicians and policemen, are against it.
The Staughton Lynd-Gary L. Anderson play also has prompted Perry to reexamine his own thoughts on the issue.
“It’s not as cut and dried in my head,” he said.
The playwrights crafted an anti-death penalty message around the 1993 prison riot in Lucasville, Ohio, in which nine prisoners and a guard were killed. Five prisoners were convicted and sentenced to death for their parts in the uprising.
Perry plays George Skatzes, a negotiator for the prisoners during the uprising and a member of the prison’s Aryan Brotherhood contingent.
“The point of the show is this one particular warden tried to make it into a racial thing,” said Perry, who was seen in a photograph accompanying a Cleveland Plain Dealer story on the play.
The play also paints the convictions of the Lucasville Five as flawed because prosecutors relied on the testimony of other prisoners who arguably had something to gain by their cooperation.
Although Perry has done light comedy and crowd-pleasing musical theater, he’s always on the lookout for meatier roles that are beyond what might be considered typical theatrical fare.
But he was asked to consider doing “Lucasville” for reasons that have nothing to do with his acting integrity or background.
“I was asked up to audition for this role because I have long hair and a beard,” he said, the look Skatzes favored at the time.
Lynd exhaustively documented the subject — he wrote a book about the uprising — and made parts of his research available to the actors.
Perry said he heard parts of taped conversations Skatzes had with state officials during the uprising, but quickly chose not to study them. If he had tried to stick with the speech patterns of those involved, the play would be slowly paced and stretch much longer than its two-hour run time, he said.
He also turned down an initial offer to meet Skatzes.
“I was afraid I might absolutely not like the man,” Perry said. “And, two, I was afraid, if I spent any time with him, I’d want to copy him and that wouldn’t work from an actor’s standpoint.”
Perry said he hasn’t ruled out meeting Skatzes in the future.
He added that he’s not trying to make Skatzes a hero or a sympathetic character.
“There are no good guys or bad guys in this,” he said. “Some classified this as a morality play.”
Even though he turned aside some real background sources in preparing for the role, he still approached it differently than he would a fictional part. He said he is portraying a real person and saying dialogue that Skatzes actually spoke, so his portrayal has “grown” into accepting that all the roles are real people.
“I want to portray him honestly. It’s been an interesting acting challenge,” he said, noting the script has changed several times since he received his first copy.
“Lucasville” opened April 11 in Portsmouth, near the site of the prison, and will have played six times around Ohio by the time the curtain goes up on the Youngstown show.
It has played in unusual places, including churches and a community center, and is presented more of a staged reading than a full-scale play in order to fit the spaces.
“This is 13 chairs and a narrator stand and a stage manager stand,” Perry said.
The grueling pace of maintaining his job in marketing at the Quaker Steak and Lube, Sharon, while driving several hours for rehearsals and performances has Perry joking of shaving and cutting his hair.
“I’m gonna stick to musical comedy,” quipped Perry, whose next role will be directing Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Buhl Farm park, Hermitage.
But, he said he probably would do something like “Lucasville” again.
“Somebody has to do it,” he said. “I’m able to do it. I’m qualified to do it.”
“Lucasville” will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in First Unitarian Universalist Church, 1105 Elm St., Youngstown. The play is for mature audience and contains offensive language and discussion of prison rape and violence. Tickets and info: www.acluohio.org and 330-746-3067.