-Theatre Review by Rachel Wooley–
The Vagabond Theater’s production of “The Exonerated,” showing now through July 6, 2014, brilliantly conveys the powerful narratives of six wrongly incarcerated Americans who find themselves victims of an imperfect criminal justice system. Director Josh Shoemaker has cast six incredible actors to share their testimony, successfully drawing audiences into their nightmare experiences.
The show doesn’t rely heavily on set, props, or costumes to engage the audience. The stage offers only a row of black folding chairs at the back and three white benches downstage. Enter: Delbert (Doug Goldman), Gary (David Shoemaker), David (Don Murray), Kerry (Don Kammann), Sunny (Beverly Shannon), and Robert (Tyrone Requer). These six characters (based on real people) were all imprisoned for murders they didn’t commit. In some cases, it was a matter of “wrong place, wrong time” and false witness testimony. In others, blatant racism or corrupt police work led to poorly informed arrests. In the courtroom, the accused were deprived of due process and badly represented by council. David and Gary recall being intimidated, manipulated and ultimately coerced into making false confessions. In every case, despite lacking hard evidence, the police force made assumptions or overlooked facts in their haste to make arrests and push through convictions.
The details of each story drive the play. In turn, the characters take their place on one of the white benches to tell parts of their story, as straightforward as if they were sitting one-on-one with a trusted friend. In this case, the audience plays confidant. The six actors portraying the exonerated bring emotional authenticity to their stories without ever crossing the line into melodrama. David Shoemaker so completely masters the voice and mannerisms of Gary that audiences quickly forget he’s portraying a character roughly twice his age. Don Murray’s subdued portrayal of David Keaton effectively demonstrates how much the character’s experiences in prison have changed him from the lively, spiritual teenager he once was. Likewise, Kerry’s story reveals the heartbreaking events that occurred during his time in prison after his conviction, and actor Don Kammann keeps the audience riveted throughout the entire re-telling of his trauma. The variety of personalities in the cast makes each story unique and intriguing, capturing the audience’s attention.
The play is formatted to use a small ensemble cast to recreate some of the storytellers’ most powerful memories – among them, the arrests, police interrogations, and courtroom scenes. Here, perhaps, lies the production’s only weakness. Company member Justin Johnson portrays, in turn, police officers, lawyers, and other peripheral characters. His depiction of the prosecuting attorney in Kerry’s case is inspired – one gets the sense that the lawyer was almost enjoying his closing argument in which he labels Kerry a “sick pervert” who must be “put to death” as would be a deranged animal. Yet some of his other characters – Robert’s friend in another scene, for example – seem almost caricatures instead of real people. And it’s not immediately clear why Sunny’s husband, Jesse, isn’t portrayed as the age he was in her memories, instead of the age he would have been in the play’s present-day.
But these issues are minor, and they don’t detract from the unsettling truth behind the stories of the exonerated. As Kerry says, if it can happen to him, who’s to say it couldn’t happen to any of us? And as is the case with Sunny’s husband Jesse, how many people – innocent people – didn’t make it out of the American criminal justice system alive?
The play doesn’t push an agenda, letting audiences interpret the characters’ stories independently. Suffering on account of injustice is a dominant theme, but the play’s message concerning healing also comes through. As each of the exonerated Americans reflects on their experience in prison and their lives afterward, they reveal personal triumphs. Somehow they have all managed to carry on, in their own way. Despite our justice system’s major flaws, as Doug Goldman’s Delbert Tibbs says, “I love this country – I really do.” But, he points out; in order to fix the problems you have to look at what’s wrong, not at what’s right. Maybe this love gives him, and some of the other characters, the energy to think critically about their experiences and to try and make some good of them.
One of the wonderful things about theater is that it can create a non-confrontational place to look critically at our society and culture. The stories of the exonerated, despite having taken place nearly 40 years ago in some cases, are still creating an incredibly relevant dialogue – one that will hopefully continue long after the play is over.