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Theater 33.2 (2003) 96-99
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The Innocence Argument
The staging is simple—it's just a row of actors on stools, really—and the lighting is stark. We mostly hear just one voice at a time, telling us a piece of a story, though these fragments accumulate a terrible momentum as the minutes pass. The plainspoken text comes straight from interviews with six people exonerated from death row. It is punctuated only by the sound of some rain or some music, and several short, contentious interchanges pulled from transcripts of the impossibly botched trials. The material is so strong that it requires actors to avoid being maudlin and simply let these stories speak.
Halfway through the play, one character, Sunny Jacobs (Marlo Thomas) reads from a letter sent by her husband, Jesse, also on death row, in which he writes that he's reading King Lear and Hamlet. And it hardly seems unwarranted for Jesse to see himself in these great tragedies. Jesse, we later find out, was executed brutally in 1990, jolted with electricity over a period of thirteen and a half minutes by a malfunctioning chair until flames shot from his head—eleven years after another man had confessed to the killing for which he'd been convicted. Even the less extreme cases have the power to stun: Gary Gauger (Jay O. Sanders), arrested for the murder of his parents less than three hours after he finds them dead, and released long after a government wiretap revealed it was the work of a motorcycle gang; or Robert Earl Hayes (David Brown Jr.), a former horse groomer and the most buoyant of the bunch, who served five years on death row only to find himself barred from the profession he loves despite his exoneration. The Exonerated, now in an open run at the 45 Bleecker Theater in New York City, is utterly absorbing and moving; the [End Page 96] night I went, several people in the audience openly wept.
The play's six main characters all avoided the chair, but this is portrayed as a bitter comfort. The play, researched and beautifully wrought by first-time playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, is more or less divided into four acts. The first three carry us, Law and Order-style, through the characters' arrests, strong-arm interrogations, and trials. But in the final act the pace shifts, as the playwrights devote significant time to the five, sixteen, or twenty-two years each spent in the brutal isolation of death row, with visions of execution haunting their waking and sleeping hours, and the broken lives that met their freedom, marked by loss of faith, addiction, and ruptured family relationships.
But the powerful stories alone don't explain the packed houses on Bleecker Street. Director Bob Balaban decided to tap celebrity firepower to attract audiences and reviews—with great success. The performance I saw, in early November, featured not only Thomas as Sunny, but Richard Dreyfuss as Kerry Max Cook, convicted of murder at age twenty-two at a trial stained by intense homophobic venom and exonerated only in middle age. (Judy Collins, Brooke Shields, Joe Morton, Kathleen Turner, and Aidan Quinn will soon rotate onto the roster. The touring production, scheduled to hit Washington, D.C., Boston, and Chicago in January and February, has star headliners of its own, including Brian Dennehy.) Under Balaban's direction, all of the actors, Dreyfuss most admirably, manage to bring enough modesty and humility to the roles to disappear into them. But it was still a distraction to see Thomas, with her cosmetically enhanced face, speak the lines of a woman who got mixed up with a [End Page 97] criminal because she couldn't even afford to repair her car, let alone pay for a lawyer at trial.
This path of using celebrities as megaphones for social issues is well traveled, but it has a troubling consequence when applied to an issue as defined by racism as the American death penalty. While lesser-known actor Charles Brown, as the eloquent African American jailhouse bard Delbert Tibbs, may open...