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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Robin Williams and Amanda Plummer Extraordinary in West Coast Premiere of The Exonerated

Also see Richard's review of Oil! Chapter One: "The Ride"

The critically acclaimed hit docudrama The Exonerated is currently playing at the Curran Theatre with a rotating cast of stars. The first week featured Robin Williams and Amanda Plummer as guest stars and both are brilliant in the roles of gentle soul Kerry Max Cook and the na´ve Sunny Jacobs, both unfairly convicted of murder. Cook and Jacobs were exonerated after lengthy court battles by attorneys who believed that the American justice system was flawed and a moral monstrosity.

Robin Williams and Amanda Plummer appear with other very talented actors who are sitting on stools at the lip of the stage with scripts on music stands in front of them. The 90 minute drama pulls no punches with its crucial message about the defective justice system in this country. The actors tell the story of the exonerated Delbert Tibbs, Sunny Jacobs, Robert Earl Hayes, Gary Gauger and Kerry Max Cook, all convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death - and all were innocent. It took years for these unfortunate persons, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, to prove their innocence.

Playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen made a six week cross country journey interviewing forty former death row prisoners and their families. The playwrights state that 98% of the dialogue on stage is from interviews, police reports and court transcripts. The Actors Gang of Los Angeles premiered the docudrama in Hollywood on April 23, 2002. It was so successful that supervising director Bob Balaban brought it to Off Broadway where it premiered at 45 Bleecker Theatre, received critical acclaim, and continues its open-ended run. Many celebrities have taken guest roles throughout the run, playing to full houses in the 299 seat theater.

Robin Williams turns in a brilliant performance as Kerry Max Cook, a tender soul who was brutalized for 22 years before being released due to DNA evidence of his innocence. (This role will also be played by Peter Coyote and Aidan Quinn.) There was scant evidence that he had killed the victim, a woman he hardly knew. However, the innocent man had no money to pay for a good lawyer or investigator to help him find the real murderer. He says, "In Texas, you get the justice you pay for." This is a subdued Robin Williams pouring out his heartfelt message to the audience.

Amanda Plummer gives a heartbreaking performance as Sunny Jacobs, the hippie mother of two who was caught along with her common law husband Jessie in a murder committed by their companion. (This role will also be played by Stockard Channing and Kathryn Grody.) Plummer is superb as the woman who, with clear-eyed dignity, tells of the ordeal of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sunny and Jessie were convicted as cop killers when the actual murderer made a plea bargain with the prosecutors. Her harrowing tale of Jessie's execution in the electric chair is disturbing; the chair misfired three times, causing excruciating pain to the body of her husband. She says it took 16 minutes to kill Jessie. All of this is told quietly and with wonderful poise. The actual killer, with nothing to lose since he was serving three consecutive life sentences, confessed to the murder after Jessie's electrocution. After Sunny was proved innocent, she languished in jail for another 12 years. She tells the audience, "take a moment to reflect: from 1976 to 1992, just remove that entire chunk from your life and that's what happened."

The stories of the three African American men represented is just as exasperating. Each was a victim of racism, which put them onto death row. Robert Earl Hayes is a Mississippi born horse groomer who was framed by the police for the rape and murder of a white woman because of a racial profile. David Brown Jr. gives a vivid, emotionally potent performance as a victim tainted by racism. David Keaton, an 18 year old Florida star football player, was coerced by the police into signing a false confession to killing a police officer while robbing a grocery store. Chad L. Coleman gives a laid back, perplex performance of this character. William Jay Marshall as poet and philosopher Delbert Tibbs (Montel Williams will play this later) has an easygoing charm about him and says "If you're accused of a sex crime in the South and you're black, you probably should have done it, because you're going to be guilty."

The Exonerated's most terrifying miscarriage of justice is that of an organic farmer in Northern Illinois who was arrested for his parents' murder just after he discovered their mutilated bodies. Gary Gauger was forced to sign a theoretical description of the events that was forced out of him after hours upon hours of interrogation. Steve Brady plays the role as a stoic and exhausted individual with soft spoken skill. (This role will be played by Brian Dennehy and Penn Jillette.) Julia Gibson, Heather Alicia Simms, Philip Levy and Jim Bracchitta are also extraordinary in supporting roles. This docudrama is an artful and moving evening of documentary theatre.

The Exonerated runs through December 21 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA. It is part of the Best of Broadway series. For tickets call 415-512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com.

Best of Broadway's next presentation will be the purrrfect holiday treat: Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, opening at the Orpheum Theatre on December 16. The Lion King opens at the Orpheum Theatre on January 29 and Mamma Mia! returns to the Golden Gate Theatre on February 24th.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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