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Theater Review

With Conviction, a Look at Convictions

'The Exonerated' collects true tales of those who were wrongfully placed on death row. It's vivid and thought-provoking at the Actors' Gang.

April 26, 2002|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To speak of life-or-death stakes in "The Exonerated" is, for once, no exaggeration. Created and directed by New York-based Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen from interviews they conducted with former death row inmates whose wrongful convictions were eventually overturned, a riveting Actors' Gang staging examines capital punishment and the justice system in chilling terms.

By depicting the stories of six innocent people (out of 100 similar cases and rising), this devastating docudrama proves more profound and persuasive than any rhetorical pitch to abstract moral principles.

In some respects, Blank and Jensen's effort was simplified by the drama inherent in the facts. Nevertheless, the work benefits from the skillful way the stories are interwoven and paced to build tension and momentum. Rising to the importance of their task, a talented Actors' Gang ensemble makes the most of this charged material.

In direct-to-the-audience narratives culled almost entirely from the survivors' own words, we meet victims from all walks of life and different parts of the country. Some were targets of political expediency--the need to close a case at any cost--like a yoga teacher (Adele Robbins) who spent 16 years in prison for the murder of two Florida state troopers, 13 of which came after an acquaintance admitted he had falsely accused her. Or the mild-mannered farmer (Brian Powell) who was asked to hypothesize a "vision statement," imagining how he might have killed his parents. It was then introduced as a confession at his trial.

Others bore the stigmata of racial animus, like the sweet-tempered, naive black teenager (Ben Cain) who was held incommunicado for a week before signing a confession drafted for him. Or the fiercely eloquent former seminary student (Richard Lawson) who serves as the central narrator, charged for a murder--in a state he hadn't even visited--solely on the basis of his skin color.

All of these people shared only the unsettling predicament of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, unable to defend themselves against circumstances that conspired against them. As one reminds us, it can happen to anyone.

While many of the protagonists had the nobility to make peace with their experience, the fact that they eventually regained their freedom offers scant comfort. There is no way that white former bartender Kerry Cook (Ken Palmer) can erase the invectives carved into his flesh during his stay in prison. Former jockey Robert Hays (Ken Elliott) was unable to regain his racing license to pursue his occupation after his release. And Jesse Tafero, whose story we hear only second-hand, was unavailable for interviews, having undergone a horrific electrocution that required three jolts and took 13 minutes, before evidence proving his innocence came to light.

While capital punishment occupies the forefront here because it is irreversible, the underlying indictment embraces the broader fallibility of our justice system. There is no way to dismiss these stark case histories as statistical aberrations--we can and must do better.

*

"The Exonerated," the Actors' Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends June 16. $20-25. (323) 465-0566, Ext. 15. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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