It is conceivable that at some future time, the verbatim capital-punishment play The Exonerated could become an archaic period piece. That hypothetical tomorrow will be one in which a lack of gun control, the criminal-justice system and institutional racism have been totally reformed or eradicated. So here’s looking forward to The Exonerated circa 2525—if theater, as the song goes, is still alive. Until then, we must sit back and absorb the grim lessons at the tenth-anniversary revival of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s harrowing docudrama, derived from talks with innocent people who served time, and were released, from death row.
The setup is the same as a decade ago: Bob Balaban stages the text—woven from exonerees’ testimonies, letters and trial transcripts—with actors reading off of music stands. The rotating cast includes celebrities: Brian Dennehy, Delroy Lindo and Stockard Channing performed the night I saw it. They read the words of six folks—some ordinary, some at the margins, some just guilty of being black—who are caught up in the meat grinder of justice and sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit. The brutality and solitude they experience behind bars (one for up to 22 years) is hard to imagine. Dennehy’s Gary Gauger, accused of slaughtering his parents, takes up embroidery to pass the time. As Sunny Jacobs, Channing explains how she and her husband, also awaiting execution, learned Japanese in order to smuggle erotic messages to each other in letters. Such passing details, coping mechanisms and expressions of mental fortitude humanize the stories but also accentuate the horror.
To live may be a blessing, but these happy endings are shadowed by tragic loss. If there’s a drawback to this iteration of The Exonerated, it’s that we could use a recap. What have the six subjects been doing for the last ten years? The answer may be brutally obvious: making up for lost time.—David Cote
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