nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
September 22, 2012
There is very little style, spectacle or overt theatricality in The Exonerated, an enduring docu-drama about former death row inmates that is being revived on its 10th anniversary by Culture Project. The stark and measured staging by director Bob Balaban (who also directed the original production), and the work of writers/archivists Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, have created a piece where actors sit upstage at music stands, embodying character but reading text compiled from hours of interviews and court transcripts detailing six stories of people unfairly convicted by our justice system and ultimately released after anywhere from two to twenty-two years.
No, there's not much theatricality, but the simplicity only serves to focus its audience towards a plethora of questions, feelings, and responses. Considering that there's not much suspense to the story – we know they'll be found guilty and ultimately released – the pacing is impressive in how it highlights the similarities between these ridiculous charges that ruined so many lives. Mostly set in Texas and Florida, the stories differ greatly: a simple country man who hooked up with a girl later found dead; a fellow whose parents were murdered while he was home; three black men arrested because their skin color fit the crime; and perhaps most memorably, a woman whose poverty and free-wheeling lifestyle led her towards the wrong lunatic at the wrong time. The stories lead one to question the efficacy of our justice system, the consequences of institutionalized prejudice, the inability of an individual to wield power, the sadness of how quickly life can pass someone by, and so much more. When the audience gasps in unison – it will happen a few times each show, I'm sure – there's no mistaking the play's palpable effect.
Much of the reason for its success lies with the powerful ensemble cast. Comprised of a regular company of six and rounded out with a rotating cast (mostly celebrities or important figures), the ensemble is well-served by the play's structure, since we end up interested to learn more about every character. In my performance, the invited cast included Brian Dennehy, writer Erik Jensen, Delroy Lindo, and Stockard Channing. Every performance is appropriately understated, and the simple staging allows us to hear the words and focus on the personalities. There isn't that much to look at, but that's why we process everything.
But the strong performances highlight what is most impressive about the show. Everything about it – the writing, the direction, the organization – is about individuals more than politics or indignation. This wide swath of characters reflect a wide swath of people, in terms of race, income, and personalities, but they are unfortunately connected by having been victims of terrible injustice. What the show evokes over polemics is a sense of loneliness, a recognition that every person has a potential that the tragic forces of life could easily negate. Because there isn't much of a fourth wall to break, their curtain call, when they stand and behold one another, offers a chance not to applaud the performers but the characters, the people who survived, who persevered and thereby stand as triumph to the dignity of the individual in the face of a world and system that too often has little concern for it.