A Review

At The Wilbur Theatre

Blind Injustice

By R. J. Donovan

"The Exonerated," at The Wilbur through February 2, makes it clear that the death penalty should be questioned, if only for its unflagging ability to lasso the wrong people.

During the summer of 2000, married authors Jessica Blank and Erik
traveled across the country to interview 40 former death row prisoners. Their subjects were from diverse ethnic, religious and educational backgrounds. The only thing they had in common was the fact that all had been sentenced to death. And all were subsequently found innocent and eventually freed, although a small part of them remains forever imprisoned.

As the announcement at the top of the show indicates, what you will hear is presented verbatim. The actors on stage represent real individuals and the words come directly from Blank and Jensen's interviews as well as court documents.

Although Brian Dennehy and Marlo Thomas provide the name factor, the show is really an ensemble piece presented as a reading. On a bare stage, ten black stools sit behind ten black music stands. The company files in, takes their places and the journey begins. Aided by nothing more than lighting, the stories churn out, unfolding a bit here and a bit there until the uncomfortably real painting is complete.

Parents are murdered and a son is charged. A beautiful woman is killed and the neighbor she had an innocent tryst with winds up in jail. A man is accused of a robbery he did not commit. A woman, kidnapped by a paroled felon who kills two patrol officers, finds herself accused of the crime by the kidnapper himself.

All wound up sentenced to die. But how?

The answer lies in a combination of things. A system that's sometimes corrupt. Power hungry law enforcement. Political aspirations. Coerced confessions. A dishonest judicial hierarchy. Bigotry. Misplaced trust. Naivete. Stupidity. Take your pick. And as one of the characters makes quite clear, “if it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.”

The challenge the play faces is that there's no surprise at who's innocent. They all are. So the drama has to come from the stories of what happened, how injustice grabbed hold of the scales and where the people ended up.

Director Bob Balaban has made understatement the rule throughout. Rather than over-the-top chewing of scenery, the stories are given a matter-of-fact touch. This is not HBO's "Oz"

Played without intermission, the show has several shining spots. Bruce Macvittie is Kerry Max Cook, the man accused of murdering his neighbor. False information was used against him, witnesses changed stories, lies were told and he spent 22 years of hell behind bars being beaten, sodomized and brutalized for something someone else did. Ultimately, it was determined who that "someone else" was, but no one ever went after him. By that time, Kerry's brother had lost his job, his family and ultimately his own life as a result of Kerry's incarceration.

Macvittie gives an touching performance of simple and heartfelt authenticity. His work was emotionally underscored when during the curtain call, the real Kerry Max Cook was introduced to the audience.

The other shining light is Marlo Thomas as Sondra “Sunny” Jacobs. Jailed with her common law husband for killing the two police officers, Thomas achieves an understatement that's almost chilling in its unadornment. Sunny eventually made it out, serving as a living memorial to never giving in to her fate.

Seemingly devoid of bitterness, her revenge was in surviving. Her husband, Jessie, however, was not as fortunate. Before her kidnapper reversed his story and admitted his guilt, Jesse was sent to the electric chair in a brutal killing that found officials sending massive jolts of power through his body three times before he was dead. It took 13 minutes for the man to expire, and at one point, flames shot from his head and smoke came from his ears.

As Thomas conveys her story, there is a sadness tinged with strength. Not the strength of someone ferociously pounding a fist in the air, but a quiet inner command founded in truth. The moment that takes your breath away, however, comes when she explains that even after it was determined she was innocent, she still remained in jail -- from 1976 to 1992.

She pauses to let the audience think about that -- having that chunk of time removed from a life. And with a faint smile, she simply stares into our faces. In the silence that follows, the air is heavy with the formidable sensation that we are all somehow guilty of failing her.

In simple but eloquent terms, "The Exonerated" tells of how six innocent people had their lives taken from them and how, on more than one level, they simply became numbers.

Whatever your personal political stance, you will not leave the theater unaffected.

“The Exonerated ” is at The Wilbur Theatre, 246 Tremont Street in Boston. For information, call 617-931-2787.

-- OnStage Boston





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