Friday, February 25, 2005

The Exonerated (Dobama)

Dobama's 'THE EXONERATED' unnerving glimpse at reality

Punishment is supposed to fit the crime, but what if there is no crime, only punishment? This is the question at the center of ‘THE EXONERATED,’ now on stage at Dobama Theatre in its Cleveland debut.

This is no ”sit back and appreciate it” play. This is an in-your-face real life expose. We experience the tales of six real people who were placed on death row due to poor or corrupt police work, thoughtless defenses, and crooked judges and politicians.

The play was born when authors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen attended an anti-death penalty conference and heard a phone call from someone on death row in Illinois who shouldn’t have been there. The duo decided that they would investigate the prevalence of the phenomenon and set off on a country-wide journey in search of the real-life "exonerated."

The authors indicate that "What we really have to say is, every time there’s a horrendous crime, the more likely it is that an innocent person will be convicted. In our six cases, every single jury member who voted to convict those people was 100 percent convinced they were putting away the right person." One of author’s goes on to state, "I don’t expect people to see the play and say, ‘Down with the death penalty.’ I expect people to see the play and say, ‘Oh, this is real. This is happening. We have to do something.’"

The question might be asked, “How common is the arrest and conviction of people who are then proven to be innocent?” The staff of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which pioneered the investigation and litigation of wrongful convictions, estimates the numbers are massive. Their efforts, on behalf of nine Illinois death-row inmates, were a driving force behind both Governor George H. Ryan's decision to suspend executions in Illinois and the current nationwide movement to reform the criminal justice system.

The movement against false imprisonment has many believers, including a number of actors who have volunteered their time to portray the characters in ‘THE EXONERATED’ in various national theatres. Some of these stars include Marlo Thomas, Brian Dennehy, Richard Dreyfuss, Sara Gilbert, and Jill Clayburgh.

To pre-experience the play, just imagine everything you did between the years 1976 and 1992. Now remove all of it. Those 16 years were taken away from Sunny Jacobs, convicted and sentenced to death for a crime she did not commit. Her story, and the other five, are tales told in their own words. This is, in fact, a spoken-word collage. There is little real action, but the words are powerful and compelling enough to hold your attention throughout the long one-act presentation.

The Dobama production is well directed by Joel Hammer. The pace is right, the emotional feelings are right, even the humor is well-keyed. This is a unit piece and the cast is mostly believable in their portrayals.

Elizabeth Townsend, true to the character’s name, Sunny, smiles through her tears as she tells the tale of how she and her husband, who was electrocuted in a torturous manner, were framed by a killer who later repented. Jimmy Wood is right on as the black dread-locked Gary, who was manipulated into a “confession” and even after being released is denied his right to return to his previous profession as a surrey horse racer, but ironically is allowed to buy a gun.

Allan Byrne is properly pathetic as an innocent man whose conviction results in his brother’s total emotional demise and eventual murder. Jeff Grover plays many roles, all of them well. Darryl Lewis acts as our poet narrator. He sounds much like James Earl Jones and is generally effective, but often looks over the heads of the audience as he speaks, instead of directly at us. This is distracting. We need the consistent direct contact.

Kirk Brown fails to reap full emotional impact as a propertied murderer of his mother and father. His initial confusion, which worked well, doesn’t transfer well into the concluding scenes. Nate Cockerill does many of his multiple roles well, but has difficulty with some of the accent switches. Marnie Task and Sonia Bishop are effective in various roles.

The sparse set consists of nine chairs and a screen on which silhouetted scenes are acted. One might question the need for the silhouettes, as the words, rather than the visual images are the important elements and the acting out of certain actions pulls the viewer from the words to unnecessary images.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE EXONERATED’ is a play you will not soon forget. The play was selected as one of the 10 best plays of 2002 in both the New York Times and Time magazine and deserves that recognition.