In a program note, Redemption director Mitchell Frazier acknowledges the widely noted excesses of America’s justice system, which incarcerates offenders in extraordinarily high numbers. “What gets less attention,” Frazier writes, “is that the vast majority of offenders will one day be released.” Josh Cragun’s new Nimbus play takes a clear-eyed look at the fictional, but representative, experiences of two Minneapolis parolees.
Shawn (Ernest Briggs) and Sandra (Dana Lee Thompson), both approaching middle age, are released at about the same time. Shawn has served 14 years for accidentally killing a clerk during a robbery, while Sandra’s done time for her role in the death — also accidental, yet also preventable — of her own young son.
Though Sandra and Shawn never meet, their lives are linked because Sandra’s college-age daughter Dee (Ashe Jaafaru) works at a flower shop owned by Beth (Julie Phillips), the widow of Shawn’s victim. Together, Beth and Dee grapple with the emotions stirred by the prisoners’ releases. Calli Kunz plays an empathetic parole officer straining to help her clients navigate a system that seems rigged against them.
In creating Redemption, Cragun, Frazier, and the company extensively researched the criminal justice system. The result is a complex story that illuminates the challenges of reassembling lives wrecked by deadly violence, while also examining the choices and circumstances leading up to those tragic gunshots.
Briggs and Thompson both bring quiet gravity to their characters’ present-day circumstances, and they could have been relied upon to tell their stories without the distracting device of flashbacks. The enactments of past events, requiring actors to hurriedly scramble into other roles, dilute rather than increase the show’s impact.
While the characters’ stories are nuanced, their formulaic dialogue is less so. The show also feels emotionally flat: There’s a constant level of generalized sadness tinged with desperation, and there’s little variation in the actors’ affect from scene to scene. These characters are being tested to great extremes, but the show itself never feels extreme.
Having Dee and Beth work together may be contrived, but it also creates opportunities for insight into their shared sorrow. Dee’s slow reconciliation with her mother is complicated by Beth’s protective impulses; in time, though, Beth starts to question her own instinctive suspicion of Shawn.
At the center of the show, Briggs earns our sympathy almost without asking for it. Shawn is frustrated by the stigma he bears as a convicted felon, but he also owns up to his mistakes. Nothing, of course, can bring his victim back or restore the life that Shawn once had. One of the many poignant truths in Redemption is that Shawn might not want that life back anyway.
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