Error, malice and death row
You might have expected Next Act Theatre to inaugurate its great new space with a play about theater and theatricality — you know, something like Ten Chimneys, now playing at The Rep, with plays within plays and all that.
David Cecsarini, producing artistic director, went the other way with The Exonerated, which is barely a play at all. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen did not so much write it as weave oral histories into a live documentary. The drama tells the stories of six innocents convicted of murder, in four cases despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary.
Ten actors play 30 different roles. They interact but little; Olivia Dawson, as Georgia, and Ethan Henry, as Robert, are married after Robert’s release. They interact the most. He’s prone to anger after his ordeal; she calms him with the gentlest humor. The relationship feels utterly genuine; it touches the heart without manipulating it.
Alfred H. Wilson’s character, Delbert, will feel familiar; he’s the convict philosopher-poet we’ve seen in many prison movies. But this guy really is innocent; he’s also wise and says things worth hearing. The ordeal has clarified his mind, in a way; over the course of his speeches, he defines America with probing accuracy and, remarkably, little rancor.
Bo Johnson’s Gary is a gentle organic farmer bewildered and terrified after being accused of murdering his parents. Jonathan Wainwright’s Kerry was falsely accused not only of murder, but also of homosexuality, which makes his stay in prison even more terrible. Lee Palmer’s David, condemned at 18, is shattered and cannot recover the bright, ambitious boy he was before his ordeal. Tami Workentin’s Sunny and her husband, Jesse (Rick Richter), make some mistakes and take the fall when a friend of Jesse guns down two officers.
They take turns telling their stories, aided by Dawson, Richter, Lisa Golda and Jim Pickering as assorted lawyers, spouses, cops and judges. They start with blundering into the crime scenes and go on through arrest, interrogation, conviction, incarceration, and the difficult adjustment to life after exoneration and release. They all have one mistake in common: They trust the system to recognize their innocence. Mean and/or lazy cops, lawyers and judges don’t care enough to seek true justice. Even if you’re a casual cynic about our justice system, the testimony will shock you.
No one tells the story start to finish. The playwrights break up tales into topics. One then another and another victim tells of arrest, for example, then they all move on to conviction and incarceration. It’s almost like a canon, a nightmare version of Row, Row, Row Your Boat.
As we hear these terrible stories, we take comfort in the title of the play. They’re exonerated, right? And thus spared the death penalty. So despite the injustice, in some way the system did finally work. Right?
Don’t bet your life on it.
The Exonerated runs through Oct. 30 at Next Act’s new theater, at 255 S. Water St. Tickets are $25-$35, with student, senior and group discounts; call (414) 278-0765 or visit the Next Act website.