“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.