At the beginning of The Exonerated, which opened last week at Invisible Theatre, 10 actors file in and take their seats, most behind a long desk on either side of the stage, one in the middle, two on stools behind. It's so tidy, so symmetrical, so orderly. But without ever moving from their seats, these actors produce 90 minutes of absolute wreckage.
The destruction is personal, emotional, psychological. The Exonerated is a documentary play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who interviewed men and women who were wrongly convicted of murder and spent years on death row until they were cleared by the extraordinary efforts of, primarily, public-interest groups.
These are not people who were pardoned for their crimes. They never committed the crimes in the first place. Despite their innocence, they nearly died.
Three of the figures are black men. The script doesn't reveal much about the criminal histories, if any, of these characters, black or white, male or female. But it's clear that the three African Americans were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death because of their skin. They were victims of America's casual, pervasive racism (I think all three were arrested in the South), and like the other characters on stage, they were victims of coercion (one of them foolishly confessed, just to end the interrogation) and desultory defense lawyers.
Of the other three, one is a self-described hippie; she, her boyfriend and their children were getting a lift from a scumbag when he killed two cops and blamed the couple for the crime. Another is a young man convicted in Texas solely on the presence of a thumbprint he'd left in the victim's apartment long before the murder, even while a more plausible suspect was running free. The third is a settled man convicted of murdering his parents when an ambiguous statement the cops had led him through was twisted into a confession at the trial.
The wreckage we see is not only that of their own lives, but that of their families. The young Texas man's brother wastes his life away in outrage and despair. The hippie's two children grow up without their parents, who remained on death row for years even after the scumbag turned in a jailhouse confession.
The Exonerated quite persuasively argues against the death penalty, not by maintaining that it's immoral to kill a killer, but by demonstrating that innocent people are executed along with the guilty. There's no browbeating here; the people simply tell their stories, and the play is all the more powerful for its understatement.
The playwrights designed this work to be read by rotating casts of socially conscious actors (on some occasions, the exonerated themselves have read their own parts). Invisible Theatre has engaged a single group of performers for this production's entire run, and although there's a script in front of each actor, all speak their parts from memory. With everybody off book, it might have been nice to get the cast out from behind the desks and offer a slightly more complex staging, in the manner of Borderlands' production of Guantanamo a few months ago. On the other hand, such distractions might have softened the impact of these people's stories.
Director Brent Gibbs helps his cast reveal their dismal stories gradually and often gently, carefully skirting any suggestion of melodrama. The actors are all tremendously effective, from Molly McKasson's sweet and slightly stoned hippie to John-Peter Wilhite's more theatrical, poetry-spouting, black-intellectual character. In between are the wholly naturalistic performances of Brian Wees, Burney Starks, Jeff Scotland and E. Lamar Keaton (who portrays his older brother, although nobody at IT knew of the relationship until he was cast). Marla Kyo and Barbea Williams have too little to do as wives of the exonerated, but are very good with what they have to work with. Harold Dixon and Terry Erbe play an assortment of bad guys, mostly antagonistic cops and lawyers, and neatly differentiate each minor character.
Not every death-row figure in this play makes it out alive, and most of those who do emerge from prison are deeply scarred. Mostly the damage is "merely" emotional, but in one case, a man must somehow return to normal life after years of being raped in prison and with the words "good pussy" carved onto his butt.
These are compelling, harrowing stories about ordinary people who become remarkable for the worst possible reason: Their lives were nearly ended by our own justice system, under circumstances wholly lacking reason and justice.