Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Also see Sharon's review of The Guys
Although The Guys is getting all the attention at The Actors' Gang, the other play sharing the stage is the one that should be getting noticed. It's called The The Exonerated and is the true story of six individuals wrongly convicted by the American legal system and sentenced to death. While The Guys celebrates what is good and noble about the American spirit, The The Exonerated brings us face to face with a horrible truth about our country. For the people in The The Exonerated weren't eventually freed from prison on some sort of legal technicalities; they were freed because after spending years awaiting execution by the state, it was determined that they were factually innocent.
The play is not fiction. Its text was derived from trial transcripts, records of police interrogations, depositions, and interviews with some of the over 100 people who have been The Exonerated after conviction of capital murder. The show follows the stories of six such individuals, beginning with their descriptions of their own arrests. It is clear from the context of these narrations that they are taking place in the present, after our protagonists have been convicted, imprisoned, and freed. The basic story arc of the play is not in doubt. We will hear these individuals speak of their trials, their imprisonment, the facts that eventually led to their release, and their attempts to return to a normal life after years in confinement.
Other elements of the play are, unfortunately, also not surprising. That racism played a part in many of the convictions is an undeniable and uncomfortable truth. That coercive interrogation processes resulted in false confessions is another. That the defendants' appointed attorneys were underfunded and unable to compete with the prosecution is a third. Yet the extent to which these injustices occurred, resulting in the convictions of innocent men and women, is somewhat astonishing. If the program notes were not so adamant that the words onstage were true, it would be hard to believe a man would be convicted based on an identification which matched him in absolutely no way but race; or that a man was browbeaten by police for over twenty hours in what the court concluded was a voluntary conversation; or that a man was defended in a capital trial by a former district attorney who had jailed him twice before.
The play also touches on some topics we might not have anticipated when considering the issues of the The Exonerated. The members of this exclusive club have faced their mortality in ways the rest of us cannot possibly imagine, having spent decades in the daily shadow of an electric chair awaiting them. They have unique, even extraordinary, perspectives on life and faith. This is not simply an anti-death penalty play; it is a character study of six individuals who lost years, even decades, of their lives, and how it affected their souls.
The cast is uniformly strong, with particularly effective performances from Richard Lawson as Delbert, the articulate poet who believed in the system so much that he voluntary waived extradition, and Ken Palmer as Kerry, a man more haunted by the brutality experienced in prison than the threat of death. Also notable is Adele Robbins as Sunny, the hippie mother of two who was, at one time, the only woman in the country on death. Sunny's story is so fascinating, it could easily form the basis of a play itself. At her first appearance on stage, it seems that Robbins is overplaying the character - she is too animated and too earthy to be someone who has spent time on death row. But as the play evolves, it becomes clear that this is Sunny's character, and it is this spirit that enabled her to survive her years in confinement.
The The Exonerated is not a feel-good play, but it isn't one calculated to make audiences feel guilty, either. It simply lets its characters tell their stories, inviting audiences to speculate on whether what happened to them could happen again, and whether there is anything else to be learned from six individuals who looked death in the face.
The Actors' Gang presents The The Exonerated; Originally Produced by The Culture Project; Written and Directed by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen. Supervising Director Bob Balaban; Scenic Designer Richard Hoover; Lighting Designer Ellen Monocroussos; Costume Designer Ann Closs-Farley; Sound Designer David Robbins; Stage Manager Leah Harrison; Publicity Rebecca Gilchrist.
The The Exonerated plays Saturdays at 7:00 and Sundays at 2:00 at The Actors' Gang through November 24. For tickets and information go to www.theactorsgang.com.