Review - The Exonerated
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by Michael Dale
It’s not unusual for theatergoers at 45 Bleecker Street to see cheery 8x10 photos of the actors they’re about to see displayed in the lobby, but those attending Culture Project’s 10th Anniversary production of The Exonerated are greeted by more somber headshots. Mounted before them are thirteen portraits by painter Daniel Bolick. Titled The Innocence Portraits, they are the faces of people who spent 10… 18… as much as 27-and-a-half years in prison – a combined 71 years on death row – for crimes that DNA and other evidence eventually proved they did not commit.
There are a great many emotions you can imagine when looking into the eyes of Bolick’s depictions: fear, sorrow, confusion and even wisps of relief at having survived a horrifying experience. But oddly enough, none of the portraits appear to be emoting anger. There’s a certain stillness in the display that is also very evident in director Bob Balaban’s production of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s play. Despite the controversies and injustices described, The Exonerated contains no dramatic extremes of emotion, and yet the stories themselves, told simply and quietly, are thoroughly compelling and heartbreaking.
Six stories are told during the course of the 90-minute production; alternating sections so that we follow them simultaneously. Ten actors sit across the stage in a row, dressed in street clothes and reading their scripts from lecterns. There are six regular company members, but the play is designed to easily accommodate a rotating cast of name stars who can slip into the show as their schedules allow. The evening I attended the rotating cast included Stockard Channing, Chris Sarandon, Delroy Lindo and Brian Dennehy. (A complete schedule of rotating cast members can be found on Culture Project’s web site.) Nearly every word they speak is taken from personal interviews with those depicted and documents and transcripts of public record.
The spiritual center of the piece is poet Delbert Tibbs (Lindo), who refuses to despair despite being convicted for rape and murder based on evidence that was later found to be tainted. Sonia ‘‘Sunny’’ Jacobs (Channing) spent 12 years on death row for a murder that someone else confessed to. When police found the parents of Gary Gauger (Dennehy) murdered, his words were misused to suggest a confession. Kerry Max Cook (Sarandon) was found guilty of killing a woman when his fingerprint on her doorknob was found by an “expert” to have been left at the time of the murder; despite the fact that determining the time when a fingerprint was left is impossible. Robert Earl Hayes (JD Williams), a black man, was found guilty of murdering a woman despite the fact that light-colored hair that could not have come from him was found grasped in her hands. (There’s a bit of comic relief in his interactions with his sassy wife, played by April Yvette Thompson.) After spending two years in prison, David Keaton (Curtis McLarin) was found to have been beaten into giving a false confession for killing a police officer, but even after being exonerated he was not released until six years later, after the real killer was found and convicted.
Though the stage is dimly lit, designer Tom Ontiveros places each of the characters in a small cell of light while they speak, exemplifying their loneliness.
The circumstances which lead to their original convictions involved combinations of human error, incompetence, inexperience, racism, red tape and, it’s suggested, the pressure to secure a conviction superseding the need to discover the truth. While this could be seen as a one-sided indictment against the legal system – particularly in the smug, unfeeling way authority figures are portrayed by Jim Bracchitta and Bruce Kronenberg – The Exonerated is not a judgmental piece. Facts are laid out before the audience to inform whatever conclusions they may make.
At the performance I attended, the actual Sunny Jacobs was introduced to the audience, seeming very sweet and upbeat. From September 25-30, she is scheduled to appear on stage playing herself. Expect emotions to be particularly high.