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9/19/12

The Exonerated - And You Thought Your Life Sucks

Sometimes a story hits a little too close emotionally, so much so I am sure that it is deliberate from a creative standpoint. Now, imagine a show that is packed to the brim with all the pathos in the world and makes it look effortless...


With plenty to love, "The Exonerated," a reading-staged drama celebrating its tenth anniversary at the Culture Project, strikes all the emotional cords without so much as anyone standing up or even dramatically pointing. Nope...just an ensemble recalling the stories of those wrongfully arrested and placed on death row, only to be proven innocent many years later a.k.a those 'exonerated'.

It's sad, you guys...and in a very subtle manner too. There comes a moment in several recounts of someone exonerated - which are all excerpted from the actual print editorial, letters, case files, court readings, etc. on each subject, you know, no big deal - can make the audience gasp audibly. I would know; it happened at least five times the night I saw it. And because the show is just that good, it's not all impact - after letting some of the details resonate at a moderate pace, the emotion just continues to build up.

It's almost a relief the show is only 90 minutes because another hour of such a dreary (but ultimately uplifting) exhibition - large in part because these all ACTUALLY happened, again, no big deal - would have had me leaking my feels on the floor. The stories are just as relevant as the original production shared them ten years ago and in terms of tapping into human compassion, The Exonerated is quite captivating.

And while the entire ensemble is on their game, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out my favorites. April Yvette Thompson, formerly of Clybourne Park, brought some tension relief playing Georgia Hayes. She was selling FAF (Fierce as Fu**) the entire time with a sharp glance or side eye to her eventually exonerated husband, nailing the comedic timing like a true pro. Speaking of her husband, JD Williams gives Robert, a man accused of murdering a white girl know for throwing herself around, some animation and quick wit without making him seem like a caricature. Chris Sarandon, playing Kerry Max Cook, who's 20+ year incarceration included sexual assault and abuse, is devastating as he goes into the specifics of his journey, including being sodomized in jail.

But of course, Stockard Channing is where it is at. Girlfriend was serving up drama realness and full-on story face without so much as a head tilt. Playing Sunny Jacobs, who remained incarcerated some 15 years despite being proven innocent after three (thanks to the incompetent legal system), Channing gives her a sense of believable optimism and sincerity that shines through when you least expect it. Because as if being on death row all that time is not awful enough, Jacobs husband had been killed via the electric chair in a mis-fired execution while she herself was still locked away. This is where Channing truly shined - turning such an unfortunately true, if ludicrously described, description of an execution into an honest and harrowing story.

By the way, the real-life Sunny Jacobs, who will represent herself in the reading later in the show's run, sat next to me the night I saw it. The reveal of it courtesy of Ms. Stockard - always one for being discreet, that girl - was sweet for all those whom attended.

You would think a played-down, practically demure, production would feel lacking compared to a full-fledged production, but this bare-minimum staged reading knows where its core is and that is letting the story remain center stage. It's hard not to leave with an enlightened prospect of what life is like while being wrongfully accused, locked up in a cell on Death Row or even post-exoneration. It's even harder not to connect with characters people that have a story worth listening too. The Exonerated may not be the most conventionally entertaining production, but it was more then worth my time with its intrigue and engagement factors, and its book is a straight-up knockout only bolstered by a subdued, but on-point ensemble.


Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg for the Associated Press/O&M Co (via The Boston Globe)

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