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'Karla' is Steve Earle's dis to the death penalty

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NEW YORK - Talent, fame, wives, drugs, divorce, jail and redemption - Steve Earle's life could be a country song. It has certainly been, at the least, theatrical.

Now, the country rebel's latest challenge takes him to the theater realm with "Karla," his Off-Broadway "old-fashioned 95-minute one-act play" about the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War.

Earle is having coffee a block from the 45 Bleecker Theatre, where "Karla's" limited-engagement begins Sunday. The Grammy-winning Texan so identified with the South has some surprising traits: He has embraced New York, has an apartment here and is a lifelong Yankees fan. And the tough-hombre musician is more likely to attend a play than live music, and thought "Caroline, or Change" was "brilliant."

But "Karla," which stars Obie Award winner Jodie Markell in the title role, isn't musical whimsy. "The play opens with her execution," says Earle, "and everybody in it is dead." The story follows Karla Faye Tucker - the double murderess who found God while awaiting execution - into the afterlife, where she encounters, among others, her victims.

Earle started writing the play six years ago, after a stint in rehab and in the midst of a creative regeneration. He initially staged "Karla" in his adopted home of Nashville, where "people who go out to theater want to see the touring company of `Cats.'" In Tennessee he had to create an audience; here he just has to convince one.

Earle is an overtly political artist. "Karla," though, is "artistically motivated.

"I'm opposed to the death penalty," he says, "but the play isn't my diatribe. It's about forgiveness."

Nonetheless, the larger goal is to eradicate execution in America, and, adds Earle, "I believe music and different forms of art can do that better than rhetoric."

For instance, "the wrongful convictions thing has turned around the energy toward the death penalty, and `The Exonerated' was a big part of that."

An Off-Broadway smash in 2003, "The Exonerated" featured a rotating cast of celebrity actors telling the stories of six innocent Death Row survivors in their own words. Allan Buchman, artistic director of the Culture Project theater group, met Earle while developing that play. More than Earle's artistic director, he's a believer.

"Clearly, many of (Earle's) songs are like miniplays," says Buchman, "so his skills as a storyteller are highly developed. And his personal experience in witnessing an execution brought a subtext."

Now there's an understatement. Earle came to know 11 men on Death Row - "none of them innocent." He witnessed the lethal injection of one, Jonathan Nobles, on Oct. 7, 1998. Watching what he believes to be state-sponsored murder shook Earle to his foundations.

"My opposition to the death penalty isn't about saving anybody on Death Row - it's about keeping me from going to hell."

Well, hell has many rooms, and theater critics have sent their share of playwrights there. Earle does worry about being dismissed as a dilettante, "but it's not gonna stop me from writing another play."

That confidence will come in handy. Buchman reminds: "Even the most seasoned playwrights are nervous before exposing their work to the sometimes heartless critics of New York."

Earle is ready to face his judges.


(c) 2005, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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