The death penalty will always be controversial, but the case against it is made much more visceral by the tales told in The Exonerated, now receiving a mostly effective tenth anniversary production at The Culture Project.
The show tells the true stories of men and women who were eventually cleared of the crimes that put them on Death Row, and playwrights Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen crafted the piece using interviews, letters, court records, and other forms of documentation. The text is presented in a reader's theater format, with ten actors sitting in front of podiums, interpreting the play's words with a minimum of staged business.
The production mixes a rotating roster of celebrity guest stars -- at my performance, they were Stockard Channing, Brian Dennehy, Delroy Lindo, and Chris Sarandon -- with cast members who will remain in the play throughout its run.
Channing, who plays former inmate Sunny Jacobs, is the clear standout, delivering her lines in a soft-spoken fashion that has a palpable emotional resonance. It helps that Sunny's story has the greatest range of all the tales told. It is at times tragic and harrowing, but there are also moments of romance, humor, and optimism.
Lindo's voice resounds with an authoritative tone, his crisp enunciation perfectly fitting the lines of verse he speaks as ex-convict turned poet Delbert Tibbs. Dennehy, as Gary Gauger, and Sarandon, as Kerry Max Cook, each have strong moments, but neither seems to inhabit his character as fully as one might hope.
There's strong work from JD Williams as another exonerated former convict, Robert Earl Hayes. He has a good rapport with April Yvette Thompson as Robert's wife, Georgia, and the way they tell Robert's wrongful conviction story adds a needed levity to the proceedings.
Curtis McLarin occasionally overplays his part as David Keaton, the last of the exonerated individuals presented here. Amelia Campbell performs the wives of Gauger and Cook, but neither role affords her much to bite into.
Rounding out the cast are Jim Bracchitta and Bruce Kronenberg, who take on multiple parts – many of them with Southern accents that seem to serve as shorthand for racist attitudes. And while it may be true that these biased prosecutors and judges were from the South, by having his actors use these accents for such characters, director Bob Balaban seems to be serving up a cultural commentary on Southern states that is far too generalized.
It's already a given that The Exonerated is not attempting to present a balanced viewpoint. For example, there are no tales of people executed for crimes they did commit, and honestly that would seem quite out of place here. The production's power is in the relation of these true stories of innocent people who were nearly put to death -- and oftentimes the simpler they are presented the better.