Flirting With Death

How an unlikely date led to the writing of 'The Exonerated'

Savvy courters know that the romantic prospect with a future is the one who seems unusually curious, easygoing, and pliable. Often this means the potential paramour will cheerfully participate in potentially boring or unsavory activities such as street-rod expos, fox-trot lessons, and, apparently, conferences on capital punishment. Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen had been dating for a month when they attended a forum on the death penalty held at Columbia University. It wasn't something that Jensen particularly wanted to do--according to Blank, he was "dragged"--but a date is a date.

In the end, both conferees were deeply affected by the event, especially by live-via-telephone testimony from a death-row inmate. From that experience, Jensen and Blank, both actors with no playwriting experience, began work on The Exonerated, which will bring Brian Dennehy and Lynn Redgrave to the State Theatre this week. The finished show is a theatrical documentary based on interviews with wrongly accused people who were once scheduled for execution. After securing a theater for three nights in November--which meant they really had to turn their idea into a play--Jensen and Blank spent much of their Y2K summer driving around the country doing interviews with 20 exonerated death-row inmates.

If looks could kill: Lynn Redgrave and Brian Dennehy dramatize the death penalty
Courtesy of the Hennepin Theater Trust
If looks could kill: Lynn Redgrave and Brian Dennehy dramatize the death penalty

"Our relationship was founded on the exonerated," says Blank. "We actually got engaged while we were on the road. Meeting these people and hearing their stories transformed both of us completely." After the interviews were done, producer-actor-director Bob Balaban, who had earlier directed Jensen, took an interest in the project and got Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon to perform in the show's November premiere. Since then, the play has toured the country, and its rotating cast has included Richard Dreyfus and Mia Farrow.

Six of Jensen and Blank's 2000 interviews, plus court transcripts and case files, provide the raw material for the simply staged production. Six actors, who generally remain seated, depict the wrongfully accused, while four swing actors play cops, lawyers, and spouses. One of the show's subjects is Tyler, Texas, native Kerry Max Cook, who spent 22 years on death row. In 1977, he was arrested for the rape and murder of a young woman he'd had an assignation with, three months before the crime. Although much evidence pointed to the victim's married boyfriend as the prime suspect, Cook was convicted and sentenced to death. Cook, who is straight, had worked in a gay bar, which led the prosecution to paint him as a "murderous homosexual." In prison he was gang-raped and had a degrading message carved into his backside. Also during Cook's time on death row--in 1999 he was cleared by DNA evidence--his brother was murdered in a bar fight.

Stories like this, which suggest the Book of Job updated by Kafka, are already the stuff of high drama and tragedy. For their retelling, the show's creators have tried to be as transparent as possible. "We realized that it was our job as playwrights to get the hell out of the way, and not to start preaching," says Blank. "It's a documentary theater piece, so once the actors start emoting, it's over. It's about simple storytelling, but a lot of work goes into that simple storytelling, which in hands of good actors, becomes invisible."

 
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