The young woman is on death row, serving a life sentence for murder. Then a television reporter takes an interest in her case, and is shocked to learn that the young woman wants to die. The prisoner admits to being guilty of her crimes, and drops her appeal - because she believes that serving a life sentence in prison to be a punishment worse than the death penalty.
"I want the state to carry out my sentence and execute me," says Claire, the prisoner played by Holly Heiser. "The state sentenced me to death. So I say Fine. Kill me."
This is the premise of Natural Life, a provocative play by Eduardo Ivan Lopez having its world premiere in New York City. Inspired by real-life events, Natural Life raises questions about capital punishment, the criminal justice system, the right to die, domestic abuse, and journalism ethics.
Despite the intense subject matter, Lopez says it is important that audiences be entertained as well. "You write for entertainment, or people will not listen, you lose them," he said. "The combination of this woman's life, what happened to her, and how the system treated her are fascinating. And she's (the character) right. A terminal sentence is beyond what most people can imagine, you are basically dead to the world. I wanted people to be aware of that."
Lopez had an unconventional route to becoming a playwright. Born in Puerto Rico, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, with his family when he was nine. After high school, he enlisted with the Marine Corps and was stationed for a time in Okinawa (These years provided the basis for his 1990 play, A Silent Thunder). He later started his own construction company; at one point he had four trucks and fourteen employees.
"But I was unhappy with what I was doing," Lopez said. "Back then, I wanted to be rich because I was born poor. When I started to make enough money to have the things I wanted, a new house, a new car, I decided that the fun had worn off. It wasn't what I wanted to do."
So Lopez left that life behind and went to Boston College for his bachelor's degree and Tufts University for his master's. Since then, Lopez has had successful off-Broadway productions, including Lady With A View, Spanish Eyes, and Fireflies. He has also written documentaries and a screenplay that was produced by the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.
While his work often has an autobiographical angle, Lopez wrote Natural Life after hearing of the actual case through a colleague of his wife, longtime New York cable television anchor Roma Torre. Lopez based his play upon the true story of journalist Carol Marin and Guinevere Garcia, who is currently serving her life sentence in Illinois. Garcia's case was a cause célèbre in the 1990s, attracting interest from the likes of CNN, Amnesty International, and Bianca Jagger.
Lopez has another connection to a celebrated journalism cause. His late mother-in-law was reporter Marie Torre, who served jail time for refusing to divulge a source in a libel suit.
Anna Holbrook, who plays the TV reporter in Natural Life, said that she appreciates the conversations that Lopez' play has started. "Honestly, I never wanted this story to get political, especially in this divisive time. But if people can have conversations about the death penalty, then I think good things can come out of it," she commented. "There are no easy answers… But we have a real problem in this country with incarcerating people, and, depending on the crime, maybe we can ask ourselves whether it is time to change that paradigm. Can we change our society and do something differently? And maybe out of that will come some empathy."
"It is so easy to hear about a woman who shoots her husband, or kills her baby and think that person is an animal," said Holbrook, an Emmy winner for her work on the NBC soap opera Another World. "But there is always more to the story."
In Natural Life, Holbrook's character unintentionally crosses a line into advocacy on behalf of the death row prisoner - advocacy that the young woman does not want. That doesn't stop Holbrook's character from confronting the state's governor with, "You're saying this woman is so terrible, such a blight on humanity that she needs to be exterminated like a disease."
Garcia, the real-life prisoner on whose experiences Natural Life is based, in fact suffered a lifetime of horrific abuse before committing her crimes.
Directed by Jake Turner, Natural Life is currently playing at the T. Schreiber Theatre in New York City, where it runs until April 2. "I hope this play goes on," Holbrook said. "I admire Ed (Lopez), and would love for him to have further success with this."
Lopez noted that he wrote Natural Life, in part, to avoid being pigeonholed as a "Latino playwright." "In the theater world, people expect Latinos to write about the barrio and immigrant stories, and of course there is more to us," he said. "Yet (Latinos) are often not taken as seriously by the mainstream when we write outside these themes."
Lopez has known other writers who changed their names so as to not be perceived as "ethnic." "But I could never have done that," he said. "To become successful as someone else? In a way, it seems dishonest to me."
Lopez's advice to aspiring playwrights is as honest as it is blunt. "Get used to being poor!" he laughs. "It is a tough road - the competition is tough… You have to pursue it only if you feel you must express yourself, that that is what you truly want to do."