×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Exonerated

"The Exonerated" is about as plain-wrap as theater comes. Actors sit on stools arrayed at the lip of the stage, with scripts on music stands in front of them. There are no sets and costumes to speak of, and sparse lighting. The evening's ultimate message is blunt, too: The death penalty is a moral monstrosity.

With:
Delbert Tibbs - Charles Brown Robert Earl Hayes - David Brown Jr. Sunny Jacobs - Jill Clayburgh Kerry Max Cook - Richard Dreyfuss Sue Gauger/Sandra - Sara Gilbert Male Ensemble - Bruce Kronenberg, Philip Levy David Keaton - Curtis McClarin Gary Gauger - Jay O. Sanders Georgia Hayes, et al. - April Yvette Thompson

“The Exonerated” is about as plain-wrap as theater comes. Actors sit on stools arrayed at the lip of the stage, with scripts on music stands in front of them. There are no sets and costumes to speak of, and only lighting is used to punctuate the transitions between speakers. The evening’s ultimate message is blunt, too: The death penalty, as it is administered by a flawed American justice system, is a moral monstrosity.

This will not be news to most Gotham theatergoers, a problem acknowledged by Richard Dreyfuss, one of the evening’s high-profile stars, in a brief postshow address. He encouraged audience members to get the word out to “the unpersuaded,” and the point is well taken. But that doesn’t mean the evening holds no interest for the firmly persuaded.

It is by no means a dry jeremiad. Drawn from a series of interviews with men and women who spent time on death row before being cleared of the crimes for which they were sentenced, it is necessarily disturbing and even grueling. So why subject yourself to it, if you’re already opposed to the death penalty? Well, why read novels about the Holocaust? Why watch movies wherein bad things happen to good people? Bearing witness to human suffering is one of art’s imperatives, and “The Exonerated” is an artful and moving evening of documentary theater.

The play’s authors, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, assembled the text from interviews they conducted with some 40 men and women who had served as many as 22 years on death row. The experiences of six are represented here. The authors later researched law records to supplement the first-person narratives with actual testimony from court cases.

It’s in these early segments detailing the arrests and convictions of the main “characters” that “The Exonerated” is weakest. With a pair of actors on either end of the stage exuberantly impersonating a variety of mendacious lawyers, benighted judges and corrupt police officers, the show tips inevitably into caricature, even if the appalling truth is that every word was actually uttered in a courtroom.

More moving is the plain-spoken reflections on their experience from the wrongfully imprisoned. They include Sunny Jacobs, played with clear-eyed dignity by Jill Clayburgh, a mother of two who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was convicted as a cop killer when the actual murderer made a plea bargain with prosecutors (“I don’t think three life sentences is a bargain,” she dryly notes). Dreyfuss offers a fine contribution as a man who was convicted of killing a young woman in Texas despite ample evidence pointing to another suspect; his quiet descriptions of harrowing experiences in jail are heartbreaking. Sara Gilbert, the third name presence in the cast (the celebrity lineup will change as the run continues), is underused but affecting in a couple of small roles.

Details of the coerced confessions, dubious evidence, implicit and explicit racism certainly set the pulse racing with anger, but the perseverance of the victims in the face of such treatment inspires respect and a kind of wonder. Small details illuminate the depth of these people’s suffering. Charles Brown, of majestic voice and sly humor, plays Delbert Tibbs, who managed to retain his philosophical perspective and his affection for poetry despite being railroaded into jail. He describes the toughest challenge in returning to the world: “When you’re in prison, you can’t allow yourself to feel too much. So when you get out, you’ve gotta practice. I had to practice a bunch to be human again.”

David Brown Jr. and Curtis McClarin give vivid, emotionally potent performances as separate victims of trials tainted by racism. For McClarin’s David Keaton, the transition back into the world seemed never to have happened. “Maybe I’m still in there, in a way,” he says. “Cause after I was out, I would go to work, I would come home, I would shut the door, and I would lock it. Just like in prison.” Brown’s Robert Earl Hayes had the help of his girlfriend Georgia (a winning April Yvette Thompson) after his release, but he still faced humiliations there. His dream of becoming a horse trainer ended when he was denied a license due to his conviction — a conviction overturned by the Supreme Court. “I can legally get a gun, but I can’t get a license to drive a horse,” he notes with ripe irony.

As harrowing as such testimony can be, there is a surprising amount of humor, too, as when Sunny says in disbelief at the idea that she could have killed anyone, “But I’m a vegetarian.”

Funny in a more macabre way is the story of Gary Gauger, played with soft-spoken skill by Jay O. Sanders. Gauger was convicted of killing his parents on the basis of a completely hypothetical description of the events — squeezed out of him after hours of interrogation — that bore no resemblance to the details of the crime.

“I want to be a living memorial,” says Sunny in the play’s final moments, after describing, in harrowing detail, the execution of her equally guiltless husband. The creators of “The Exonerated,” led by director Bob Balaban, who oversees the production with unobtrusive skill, are seeing to it that she is. The play is on the one hand a devastating memorial to injustice, but it also pays handsome tribute to the resilience of human hearts and minds. Having endured misfortunes it might be more comfortable to try to forget, the men and women depicted here chose to tell their stories, in the hope that one day there will be no more such stories to tell. The least we can do is listen.

The Exonerated

45 Bleecker; 299 seats; $55 top

Production: A Culture Project, Morton Swinsky, Bob Balaban and Allan Buchman presentation, in association with Patrick Blake and David Elliott, of a play in one act by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Directed by Bob Balaban.

Creative: Production design, Tom Ontiveros; costumes, Sara J. Tosetti; music and sound, David Robbins; production stage manager, Thomas J. Gates. Opened Oct. 10, 2002 Reviewed Oct. 7. Running time: 1 Hour, 40 Min.

Cast: Delbert Tibbs - Charles Brown Robert Earl Hayes - David Brown Jr. Sunny Jacobs - Jill Clayburgh Kerry Max Cook - Richard Dreyfuss Sue Gauger/Sandra - Sara Gilbert Male Ensemble - Bruce Kronenberg, Philip Levy David Keaton - Curtis McClarin Gary Gauger - Jay O. Sanders Georgia Hayes, et al. - April Yvette Thompson

More Legit

  • All My Sons review

    Broadway Review: 'All My Sons' With Annette Bening

    Don’t be fooled by the placid backyard setting, neighborly small talk and father-son joviality at the start of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s blistering revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” starring Annette Bening and Tracy Letts. There are plenty of secrets, resentments and disillusionments ahead, poised to rip this sunny Middle Americana facade to shreds. [...]

  • A still image from The Seven

    How Magic Leap, Video Games Are Defining Future of Royal Shakespeare Company

    At the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon, Sarah Ellis has the difficult job of figuring out where theater of the 1500s fits into the 21st century. As Director of Digital Development, a title which might seem out of place in an industry ruled by live, human performances, Ellis represents a recent seachange on [...]

  • Gary review

    Broadway Review: 'Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus' With Nathan Lane

    Nathan Lane and Kristine Nielsen, two of the funniest people on the face of the earth, play street cleaners tasked with carting away the dead after the civil wars that brought down the Roman Empire. Well, a job’s a job, and Gary (Lane) and Janice (Nielsen) go about their disgusting work without complaint. “Long story [...]

  • Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow'Hillary and Clinton'

    Why John Lithgow Worried About Starring in Broadway's 'Hillary and Clinton'

    When Lucas Hnath first conceived of “Hillary and Clinton” in 2008, he was writing for and about a very different America. Now, a total reimagining of the show has made its way to Broadway with Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in the titular roles. At the opening on Thursday night, the cast and creatives talked [...]

  • Three Sisters review

    London Theater Review: 'Three Sisters'

    Ennui has become exhaustion in playwright Cordelia Lynn’s new version of “Three Sisters.” The word recurs and recurs. Everyone on the Prozorov estate is worn out; too “overworked” to do anything but sit around idle. Are they killing time or is time killing them? Either way, a play often framed as a study of boredom [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Took 12 Years to Get to Broadway, but It's More Relevant Than Ever

    When “Hadestown” was first staged as a tiny, DIY theater project in Vermont, those involved could never have predicted that it was the start of a 12-year journey to Broadway — or how painfully relevant it would be when it arrived. At Wednesday night’s opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the cast and creatives discussed [...]

  • Hillary and Clinton review

    Broadway Review: Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in 'Hillary and Clinton'

    If anyone could play Hillary Clinton, it’s Laurie Metcalf – and here she is, in Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton,” giving a performance that feels painfully honest and true. And if anyone could capture Bill Clinton’s feckless but irresistible charm, that would be John Lithgow – and here he is, too. Who better to work [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content