Gripping stories of surviving death row

Play tells of those wrongly convicted


January 17, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Sure, they made mistakes, some more serious than others. Who hasn't?

Sunny Jacobs didn't object when her husband, the father of her two children, went to Florida to close a drug deal. Gary Gauger waited until morning to notify the police that his elderly parents were missing. As a teen-ager, Kerry Max Cook landed in jail twice for minor scrapes with the law.

But their missteps didn't justify what followed. Jacobs, Gauger and Cook didn't deserve to spend decades on death row, convicted of murders they didn't commit. In each case, exculpatory evidence surfaced years later.

As Cook says in the gripping production of The Exonerated, running through Sunday at the Warner Theatre in Washington: "I'm no different from you. I wasn't a street thug. I wasn't trash. I came from a good family. If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone."

That point was driven home after the play had ended, when Jacobs and Cook were summoned on stage from their seats in the orchestra. She is a small woman with pulled-back gray hair, wearing a powder-blue sweater. He is a husky man who looked a bit ill at ease, having just shared the most painful details of his life with a roomful of strangers. The audience rose to its feet in a standing ovation that went on and on and on. It was a kind of group apology, as heartfelt as it was inadequate.

Individually, the five men and one woman profiled in The Exonerated have had their share of publicity. Together, the stories have a weight far greater than the sum of their tragic parts.

In the summer of 2000, Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen found 89 former death row inmates who later were freed, and interviewed 40 of them in depth. The playwrights winnowed these stories down to the six they considered most representative and compelling.

The Exonerated is in the style of such journalistic plays as The Laramie Project (about the brutal murder of a young gay man in Wyoming) or The Guys (about a group of firefighters who died in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center). Instead of invented characters, situations and dialogue, these plays are pieced together from verbatim interviews with the participants in historic events. They are the stage equivalent of documentaries.

Most of these plays are characterized by the virtual absence of props, sets and traditional staging, which emphasizes that the pieces are based on real-life circumstances. Were the actors to wear costumes, it could have the effect of trivializing the people they are portraying by setting them at an emotional remove from the rest of us.

Many attract rotating casts of celebrity actors eager to publicize a favorite social cause. At the Warner, Mia Farrow (as Jacobs) Brian Dennehy (Gauger) and Chad Lowe (Cook) are among the 10 actors dressed in street clothes who occupy a row of chairs set in a straight line across the stage, occasionally reading from scripts resting on music stands. In keeping with the minimalist staging, their acting is similarly understated. Wisely, they trust the power of the events they are relating.

The lighting design consists of a series of spotlights that bathes each actor in a cone of white light when it is his or her turn to speak. Granted, it is functional, but it also has a perhaps unintended emotional consequence. It's as if the characters, when they were in their most dire need, were under the protection of a pure and simple spirit, perhaps a guardian angel.

And heaven knows, they needed one.

Cook was gang-raped when he was on death row, and a mocking epithet was carved into his buttocks. He sees the scars every time he takes a shower. He likens that to being executed by the state of Texas every single day.

Jacobs went free after the true killer confessed to murdering two police officers. But that was after her husband, Jesse Tafero, was put to death in an execution that went horribly awry when the electric chair malfunctioned.

Three jolts of electricity lasting 55 seconds each were sent through Tafero's body. Flames shot out of the top of his head, and smoke poured from his ears. It took more than 13 minutes for him to die.

And he was innocent.

The Exonerated

When: 8 p.m. tonight; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m., 7 p.m. Sunday. Closes Sunday

Where: Warner Theatre, 13th and E streets NW, Washington

Admission: $16.50-$59

Call: 410-481-7328 or visit

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