The staging of the powerful Off-Broadway drama, “The Exonerated,” is simplicity incarnate.
The touring show, which plays through Sunday at the Moore Theatre, is as visually spare as they come. Ten actors in casual attire (including two stage and screen luminaries, Brian Dennehy and Lynn Redgrave), sit onstage in nondescript chairs, with their scripts resting on music stands.
Apart from some elementary lighting and sound effects, that’s about it for production values in director Bob Balaban’s staging.
And that is all that’s needed to put the focus where it belongs: on a group of excellent actors delivering the gripping, complicated, triumphant and tragic true stories of a half-dozen Americans who have spent up to 22 years living on death row.
The fact that the six individuals profiled in “The Exonerated” were eventually cleared of their alleged crimes, or released from prison due to a major lack of evidence against them, makes this a stirring brief that outdoes any fictional crime-and-punishment TV show for pathos and plot twists.
And whether one opposes the death penalty or endorses it, most of us hold fast to the sacred American notion that human beings are innocent until proven guilty. And that tenet comes in for a real trial by fire here.
While the complexities of capital crime prosecutions are beyond the ken of most of us, “The Exonerated” distills them into six profound individual struggles, skillfully cobbled into script form by authors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen from interviews, court transcripts and other documentary materials.
The half-dozen cases are distinct, yet smoothly threaded together into a dark tapestry. There is the matter of Gary Gauger (played with quiet authenticity by Dennehy), a Midwestern farmer convicted of murdering his parents despite an absence of evidence to implicate him. And that of Kerry Max Cook, who spent 22 years jailed, and awaiting execution, for killing a young woman � until his claim of innocence was finally backed by DNA evidence.
There are the race-tinged persecutions of three African-American men: Delbert Tibbs (William Jay Marshall), David Keaton (Chad L. Coleman) and Robert Earl Hayes (David Brown Jr.). All three cases occurred in Florida, which has one of the highest execution rates (and rates of executing minorities) in the nation, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
And the saga of Sunny Jacobs (played with poignant dignity by Lynn Redgrave), who spent 16 years on Florida’s death row for the homicides of two policemen. Dubious testimony by a fellow defendant sent Jacobs to prison; when the man recanted and took responsibility for the murders himself, she was finally released. (Her husband, Jesse Tafero, wasn’t so fortunate: He was executed for the same crimes, in a horrifically botched electrocution. Its description, and other graphic dialogue, makes this an unsuitable show for young children.)
“The Exonerated” presents particulars of each case, with several more actors taking on the minor roles of wives, lawyers, judges and others.
But the 90-minute performance doesn’t bog down in legal intricacies. Instead, it takes time to explore the effects of these Kafka-esque events on the emotional and spiritual lives of the main characters. (Especially moving, in addition to Redgrave’s Sunny, are Coleman’s shattering account of Keaton’s found and lost religious faith, and the gritty wisdom Marshall invests in Tibbs’ poetry.)
Without bombast or stridency, “The Exonerated” also vigorously questions the fairness of our legal system, by illustrating how justice can derail through forced confessions, racial and sexual bias and prosecutorial misconduct.
And the play underscores how many low-income defendants simply can’t afford good, or even competent, legal help.
As one of the exonerated men notes succinctly, of the meager fee awarded to his court-appointed lawyer, “You get what you pay for.”