Death row show gets dramatic reading

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Nov. 19, 2002 at 12:14 PM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- A death row documentary titled "The Exonerated" is getting a timely dramatic reading at an Off Broadway theater that has attracted a revolving galaxy of stage, screen, and television stars to the cast.

It's not every play that can boast such names as Jill Clayburgh, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Gallagher, Judy Collins, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Belafonte, Mia Farrow, Steve Buscemi, Bebe Neuwirth, John Turturro, Susan Sarandon, Marlo Thomas, Gabriel Byrne, Tim Robbins and Debra Winger. But the new work for the stage by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen at the 45 Bleecker Theater can do just that.

You won't be seeing all these top-billed actors and actresses in any one performance, but you will see two or three of them whenever you see the show. This critic caught a performance with its cast of 10 headed by Clayburgh and Dreyfuss, who to their credit blended in nicely with the acting ensemble rather than giving star turns.

To obtain material for "The Exonerated," the playwrights interviewed more than 60 of the more than 100 death row prisoners who have been declared innocent in recent years of the crimes for which they had been found guilty and culled hundreds of legal documents, court transcripts, and letters. The show focuses on only six cases, weaving them into a powerful drama about a flawed aspect of American justice.

It's a story told frequently in the news, especially since the advent of DNA as a tool in identifying criminals. The show not only grips the attention of audiences while it is being performed but is a cause for reflection long after leaving the theater as more mistaken identity cases involving death row prisoners are reported, shaking the nation's complacency about justice gone wrong.

"The Exonerated" gives voice to five men and one woman whose resilience and will to survive is remarkable.

As Kerry Max Cook, the character played by Dreyfuss, says, looking back on 22 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, "The State of Texas executed me over a thousand times, man, and it just keeps doing it." He describes his daily shower as a harrowing experience because his body is scarred with obscene words carved into his skin by fellow inmates.

Clayburgh, in an especially moving and glowingly beautiful performance, plays the role of Sunny Jacobs who was found guilty of shooting of two police officers along in association with her lover, Jesse Tafero, who was electrocuted for the crime.

Jacobs spent almost 17 years in prison before being released on fresh evidence of her innocence. The joy she feels in her new-found freedom is forever marred by the lost years of her life and the lost opportunity of watching her child grow up.

"I'll give you a moment just to reflect," she says. "From 1976 to 1992, just remove that entire chunk from your life."

Directed without dramatic flourishes by Bob Balaban, the cast occupies chairs across the front of the stage set up behind music stands holding play scripts. Although this is a "reading," most of the scripts have been memorized so the actors can address the audience directly as though recalling spontaneously the arrests, interrogations, and trials that made their lives a living hell.

Three of the convicted men are blacks, and one of them -- Delbert Tibbs played by Charles Brown -- is a sort of cast philosopher. He is an erstwhile seminary student convicted of rape and murder in Florida who not only tells his own story in poetic terms but tries to find some logic in the accounts of the other characters in the play.

As for himself, he has this to say: "As I sometimes tell people, if you're accused of a sex crime in the South and you're black, you probably should have done it, you know?"

Harrowing stories also are told by actors Jay O. Sanders as Gary Gauger, a farmer accused of killing his parents, and Curtis McClarin as David Keaton, a prisoner who loses his faith in God on death row. There also are some voices from the outside including two police officers played by David Brown Jr. and Philip Levy, and several actors playing double roles.

Tom Ontiveros is responsible for the production design and Sara J. Tosetti coordinated the costumes. David Robbins is the composer of original music for the show as well as its sound design.

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