SANTA MONICA, Calif. — The story of a Mississippi death row inmate who admitted his guilt and converted to the Catholic faith after seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary has come to the stage in a play that premiered in California last month.
Cathal Gallagher’s play, Claude Newman: A Miracle on Death Row, dramatizes the last days of Claude Newman, a convicted murder executed in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1944 for killing his grandmother’s abusive lover.
Gallagher explained to Catholic News Agency on Oct. 15 that Newman’s alleged death-row visions of the Virgin Mary changed him.
“On the night he was supposed to die, there was a reprieve from the governor, a two-week stay of execution. Claude Newman didn’t want the stay. He said, ‘If you looked into her eyes, and looked into her face, you wouldn’t want to live another minute.’”
“When I heard all that,” Gallagher said, “I thought, This sounds like a good play!’”
The play is running from Sept. 28 to Oct. 21 at Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica, Calif., under director Maria Vargo.
The play examines Newman’s incarceration, during which he got into an argument with a Catholic inmate about a miraculous medal of the Virgin Mary. The inmate threw the medal at him and told him to take it.
Newman put the medal on.
“That night he had an encounter with the Virgin Mary and told the chaplain about it,” Gallagher said.
The chaplain, Divine Word Father Robert O'Leary, didn’t believe Newman until the inmate told him about events that happened earlier in the priest’s life.
“And that was the beginning of the story,” Gallagher said.
Newman converted to Catholicism through the chaplaincy.
Gallagher’s play considers the apparition and its effects on Newman and those around him. Newman did not admit his crime until after the apparition, which Gallagher said was evidence in favor of the authenticity of the convict’s experience of the Virgin Mary.
The playwright said the available information on Claude Newman is sometimes contradictory. Father O’Leary recorded a tape about his experience with Newman about 20 years after the inmate’s execution, though Gallagher said he had given his own copy of the tape to someone else.
Marcia Stein, archivist at the Robert M. Myers Archives of the Society of the Divine Word’s Chicago province, said Newman’s story was “controversial” at the time.
The play on Newman’s life is being produced by the G.K. Chesterton Theatre Company, a Catholic nonprofit Gallagher and others founded three years ago.
Gallagher said Catholics “have to put out our own entertainment.”
“A Hollywood producer once said that entertainment has more influence on young people than parents do. I think that if as Catholics we allow the culture, the Hollywood culture especially, to dictate what entertainment we are going to get, we are going to lose an entire generation,” he said.
“That’s one reason that we decided to establish the theater company.”
The company does not have its own space. It rents out theaters rather than use church halls.
“That way, the secular society comes to us,” Gallagher said. “If we want to engage the culture, we have to go out to them.”
The company is “lucky to break even” and lacks major benefactors, the playwright said.
“We’ll keep going as long as we can.”
The company has staged four other productions of plays with Catholic themes, including a play about the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge’s encounter with Mother Teresa, a play about the Mexican martyr Blessed Miguel Pro, and a play about Franz Jagerstatter, a conscientious objector in Austria who refused to fight in World War II.
Gallagher’s son Peter heads the G.K. Chesterton Theatre Company. He said the company is considering extending its performances of A Miracle on Death Row through Oct. 28.