Richard Dreyfuss in The Exonerated(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Richard Dreyfuss in The Exonerated
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The Exonerated, which was compiled and shaped by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, tries the American system of justice and finds it guilty on counts of gross iniquity and incompetence. The verdict on The Exonerated as a theater piece is not as simply reached.

There's no denying that the work is powerful, in large part because it's entirely factual and contains only excerpts from court documents, interviews, and depositions. The testimony of six innocent people -- five men and a woman, who languished as long as 22 years on death row before their convictions were overturned -- makes up most of the text. The freedom that these people regained, they explain, is physical but not necessarily psychological. During the 90 minutes it takes for their regrettably true tales to be told, no audience member is likely to be unaffected.

Explaining how they became implicated in the crimes for which they were incarcerated, how confessions were or weren't obtained from them, how their trials failed to substantiate their innocence, what their years in prison were like, and how they came to be released, these victims of astonishing injustice become unquestionably sympathetic. They're hard-luck folks robbed of time, spirit, and untainted futures, from the white man convicted of murdering his parents to the black man falsely said to have raped a woman and killed her male companion to the white woman convicted -- along with her common-law husband who was eventually executed -- in the murders of two highway policemen.

As scripters Blank and Jensen set their real-life characters to constructing their case histories in alternating speeches, the facts become increasingly shocking and infuriating. Kerry Max Cook -- here given voice by Richard Dreyfuss -- reports that, prior to his sentence, inaccurate word got out that he was homosexual, which led to his being sodomized when he arrived in prison and having "good p-u-s-s-y" carved on his buttocks. Robert Earl Hayes (David Brown Jr.) describes having to send a letter to a judge requesting that a particularly abusive guard be kept away from him. David Keaton (Curtis McClarin) recounts a devastating loss of faith. On the other hand, Sunny Jacobs (Jill Clayburgh) outlines her eventual realization that exercising mind over matter would be the key to her liberation; Gary Gauger (Jay O. Sanders) goes on about the embroidery he did to pass time; and Delbert Tibbs (Charles Brown), serving as a kind of Walt Whitman-esque guide through the play, implies that his poetic turn of mind saw him through his ordeal. It's he who declares that, whatever he and his colleagues endured, they now "sing" for freedom and change.

As the six exonerated figures tell their stories, the occasional courtroom or police station scene is played out by actors Bruce Kronenberg, Philip Levy, Sara Gilbert and April Yvette Thompson; in brief vignettes, inflexible judges, melodramatic prosecuting attorneys, and intolerant police officials are heard obscuring the path to truth. Meanwhile, outraged wives, sympathetic defense lawyers, and the occasional altruistic legal aid or social worker speak up. While their voices mingle with the ex-death row inhabitants, the picture of a legal system riddled with damning inconsistencies comes into focus.

It's accurate to say that little or nothing that hasn't been reported by the media for decades is revealed here. The fact that DNA evidence has had a huge effect on reversing jury decisions is hardly news, nor is it revelatory to hear that officials with axes to grind and prejudices to keep green and cases to stamp "solved" are only too happy to jump to wrong conclusions. This is the familiar stuff not only of op-ed columns but of Sherlock Holmes, not to mention TV's Columbo and Monk as well. And there's nothing fresh in having it reiterated that prison life is numbing at best, brutal at worst. What is persuasive is the accumulation of horrifying details about harm done and pain suffered. Nor can the destructive repercussions of ironic circumstances be dismissed. For instance, Kerry Max Cook mentions that the college professor who committed the crime for which Cook served time remains a free man. Cook also tells us that his brother, unable to help Kerry, became an alcoholic and was eventually shot in a parking yard brawl -- a death for which Cook's mother blamed him. "My mother would look me in the eye," he says, "and tell me that I'm responsible for my brother's murder."

April Yvette Thompson and David Brown, Jr.in The Exonerated(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
April Yvette Thompson and David Brown, Jr.
in The Exonerated
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The emotions with which the stories are recited lend inestimable weight to The Exonerated. For this latter element, the actors giving voice to the transcripts must be credited. Dreyfuss, Clayburgh, Charles Brown, David Brown Jr., Sanders, and McClarin stand out because they have the most to say, but Kronenberg, Levy, Gilbert, and Thompson -- all of them taking on multiple roles -- are also great assets. So is director Bob Balaban, who has to have been the one to decide that understated performing is the way to win the fervent argument that Blank and Jensen are making for abolishing the death penalty in states where it is still on the books as law. But at issue here is not just the subject matter of the play but also the mode in which it has been framed. The actors, in street clothes coordinated by Sara J. Tosetti, enter by twos and sit on bar stools behind music stands and in front of a black curtain. Once they've perched, they remain where they are and are picked out in pools of light when they speak. (One reason for the lack of blocking is that famous replacements can be slipped into the cast easily, as is reportedly the plan.) David Robbins's sporadic sound effects -- gunshots, rain, etc. -- help set various scenes when necessary; at other moments Robbins's original music stirs the heated air.

These amenities are the staples of a staged reading rather than the fixtures of a play, which is what The Exonerated indisputably isn't. It's a marvelously outfitted polemic. Well, maybe if the definition of "play" is extremely broad, it qualifies. Then it's a play with characters but without developing characterizations, and the main conflict in which it deals is the conflict society faces on the subject of justice and humane behavior. Blank and Jensen have presented one side of an argument for which, many would say, there is only one side; that the death penalty needs to be jettisoned, particularly as the list of exonerated innocents grows, should be a no-brainer. But note: A friend of mine -- a die-hard death penalty advocate -- called after seeing this production to say that, for the first time in his life, something he's experienced in a theater has changed his mind on a public issue. If Blank and Jensen, who took time away from acting careers to do the arduous research that led to this piece, haven't exactly perpetrated a play in The Exonerated, they have certainly created something worthwhile in the theater.