Looking death in the face and never backing down

`Exonerated' is the stories of 6 people wrongly convicted of capital crimes

TheaterReview

November 13, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

I'm no different from you - I mean, I wasn't a street thug, I wasn't trash, I came from a good family - if it happened to me, man, it can happen to anyone."

These are the words of Kerry Max Cook, a man who spent 22 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit. The words are spoken two-thirds of the way into The Exonerated, a play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen built from interviews with a half-dozen freed death row inmates, as well as court transcripts and other legal documents.

Is it theater? Is it testimony? Is it docudrama? Performed as a staged reading by 10 actors seated in front of music stands holding scripts, The Exonerated belongs to the increasingly popular theatrical subgenre of minimally staged plays created from verbatim interviews (think Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, Anne Nelson's post-9/11 The Guys or even the one-woman shows of former Baltimorean Anna Deavere Smith).

Most of these plays are politically charged, and The Exonerated, directed by Bob Balaban, is no exception. Blank and Jensen have said they tried not to impose their anti-capital punishment point of view on the work, but after audiences listen to accounts of six harrowing errors in the system, that viewpoint is impossible to deny.

In the touring production at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, however, what comes across most startlingly is -- as Cook says -- how easy it is to become one of those errors. The 90-minute show brings this realization home in several different ways.

Most obviously, there are the stories of people who were tragically in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cook had visited the apartment of the murder victim and his fingerprint was found on a door frame. Sunny Jacobs -- the only female exoneree in the show -- was in a car with her husband and children when the driver, a parole violator, opened fire on two policemen who stopped to question him. And Delbert Tibbs, a former seminary student and military veteran, was hitchhiking when he was arrested and convicted of rape and murder, without a shred of evidence.

The low-key manner in which the performers relate these stories may seem unlikely for people who served anywhere from two to 22 years incarcerated for crimes they didn't commit. But if much of their anger seems repressed, it's because, as Tibbs explains, after being released, "the main adjustment was just learning to feel again." If anything, their matter-of-fact tone further reinforces the ordinariness of these six wrongly convicted citizens.

The production's most compelling performance is that of Jonathan Walker, who plays Cook as a man who is both meek and firm, and still incredulous at the hand fate dealt him. Lynn Redgrave portrays Sunny, a former hippie, as a woman whose name accurately reflects her refusal to surrender hope, even after her husband is brutally executed by a malfunctioning electric chair. And Robert Carradine brings a sense of simplicity and, as it turns out, dangerously misplaced trust to Gary Gauger, a farmer convicted of slaying his parents.

There's one other way in which the frightening ease of mistaken convictions is reinforced. Four of the cast members do not play exonerees; instead, they do multiple duty as spouses, lawyers, police officers, judges and, in Sunny Jacobs' case, the murderer. In other words, they demonstrate that people on both sides of the law can look remarkably alike. Though on a smaller and less effective scale, it's a casting choice similar to that used in Center Stage's 2001 production of Peter Weiss' The Investigation, in which director Irene Lewis had the same actors play both witnesses and the accused.

The audience at Tuesday's opening at the Mechanic got an unexpected surprise after the curtain call. Redgrave announced that the real Delbert Tibbs had attended the performance. He then came on stage, shook hands with the cast and hugged William Jay Marshall, the actor who played him.

Taking the mike, the gentle-looking Tibbs said he was "gratified to be here and a little bit humbled," and explained that he has come to believe that God sent him to death row because "he needs somebody to go and to come back and talk about it."

Nothing on stage that night -- not the strong performances or the script's gruesome facts -- was quite as chilling as Tibbs' unscripted contribution. Indeed, hearing from the man himself somehow emphasized the manufactured nature of the play. The material is undeniably powerful, but at times the way it is presented seems a little too much like a well-crafted seminar.

Maybe that's one reason there were a number of walkouts opening night. Unfortunately, those who left early missed the most dramatic part of the evening.

Exonerated

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 23

Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

Admission: $22.50-$60

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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