Spotlight: The Exonerated


The prospect of being falsely accused of a crime is an evergreen chiller; the death penalty makes such matters vertiginously terrifying. In The Exonerated, Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen compile monologues based on the real stories of people who faced down the prospect of being executed for crimes they didn't commit, only to be released based on later evidence. There's no dramatic action to speak of in the show. Instead, the 10 actors sit in chairs in a row along the stage, with scripts on music stands before them. For this to work, the actors have to sell their performances through subtleties of speech and inflection, and under Wendy Knox's direction the characters emerge as desperately sympathetic. Delbert (Emil Herrera) anchors the proceedings with understated poetic recitals, while also telling a story of how the police and courts, eager to close a murder case, pinned the conviction on him. Similarly railroaded are David (Warren C. Bowles) and Robert (Harry Waters Jr.). Bowles plays a man whose faith is shaken when he's unjustly convicted of a fatal store robbery, and Waters's character seethes with rage over having years of his life taken away. Gary Keast and Grant Richey infuse their wrenching stories with confusion and flat resignation. An unexpected narrator emerges in Sunny (Virginia Burke), a hippie mom in the wrong place at the wrong time. Burke recounts her story with wide-eyed disbelief and an unshaken romanticism that underscore the monumental injustice perpetrated against both her and her spouse. (Her husband was the victim of a famous botched execution, when he had to be shocked three times on the electric chair, until smoke poured from his ears.) This is a demanding show, especially as it clocks in at a little more than an hour and a half with no intermission. But these powerhouse performances are up to the gravity of the material. If you come away still believing in the justice of the death penalty, your powers of denial are powerful, indeed.