Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As Moises Kaufman and the members of his Tectonic Project forged The Laramie Project from interviews with the people in the town where Matthew Shepard was killed, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen have created The Exonerated from interviews they conducted with former death row inmates all over the country. Unlike Laramie, which focuses on a single case, The Exonerated uses the stories of six of its interview subjects to represent not only the forty people with whom they met but the eighty-nine people who were exonerated in the summer of 2000 when they took their tape recorders on the road. Exonerated, by the way, does not mean that you are declared unconditionally innocent but that you've been freed because it turns out that you have not been proven guilty beyond a doubt.
While this is an unashamed anti-death penalty polemic, Blank and Jensen are theater people as much as American citizens with a cause. In format, The Exonerated, is, like The Guys, essentially a staged reading. However, with a strong assist from director Bob Balaban, the cross-cutting from one monologist to another and the power of the words (condensed,combined and extrapolated for theatrical impact but using the words from the authors' transcripts) is such that those who come expecting a play and not a lecture won't feel short changed. Like The Guys and other concert style plays, The Exonerated, could, with the right audience response, continue its open run indefinitely, with the cast rotating and kept newsworthy by the addition of other high profile actors like the current production's Jill Clayburgh, Sara Gilbert and Richard Dreyfuss*.
But don't expect any of these box office draw actors to dominate the stage. Clayburgh and Dreyfuss powerfully relate two of six gut-wrenching stories so that we have a real picture of each one's personality. The same is true of the other stories and the rest of the ensemble. Gilbert has one of the smallest roles as the woman who marries Kerry Max Cooke (Richard Dreyfuss. after he is released from prison.
Clayburgh at first seems too well-groomed and upbeat to be part of these at times gasp inducing experiences. But as we get to know Sunny Jacobs we understand the almost constant smile. This woman, who along with her common-law husband was sent to death row based on false evidence given by a man who turned out to be a friend from Hell, is one of the most forceful characters on stage. At first incapable of taking in her incarceration -- "I'm a hippie, a vegetarian-- how could I kill anyone?" -- she survives her incredible twenty-two year ordeal when she determines to have faith because " I wasn't just a lump of flesh you could put in a cage." True to her name, she also goes on with her life as a Yoga teacher and public speaker, determined that her living will serve as a memorial for her lover.
Unlike Sunny, Kerry (the Dreyfuss character), and several of the other exonerated have more difficulty dealing with the nightmare memories of their ordeals. As Kerry says, "They executed me a thousand times and they're still doing it."
The most articulate character, a political radical named Delbert Tibbs, who was falsely accused of rape and murder while hitchhiking across America, is played with distinction by the mellifluous voiced Charles Brown who last excelled in King Hedley II. As already pointed out though, this is an ensemble piece includes besides Sara Gilbert's "swing" character an African-American ( (April Yvette Thompson) who plays a variety of other supporting parts. There is also a male chorus, the versatile Bruce Kronenberg and Philip Levy, to take on all the bigoted and politically motivated rotten apples in the American justice system.
If you're looking for a two-sided, open-minded play about capital punishment, this is not it. Still, whether you're for or against it, you'll be moved by the potency with which these particular case histories are brought to life. The Exonerated is not easy to watch, but then it's not easy to be locked up and condemned to death for a crime you didn't commit and, as Sunny puts it, have an "entire chunk from your life removed."
* The cast rotation began within a week of this review, with Peter Gallagher and Amelia Campbell scheduled to move into Richard Dreyfuss's and Sara Gilbert's chairs.
LINKS TO OTHER PLAYS MENTIONED
The Laramie Project
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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