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The latest work to grace the stage of the Deep Dish Theater Company, The Exonerated is a work that can both raise hope and cause fury. It is a narrative of six legal cases across America in which the defendants were sentenced to death, but ultimately had their cases overturned after many years of erroneous imprisonment on Death Row. The Exonerated is not exactly a play at all; it actually better fits the definition of a reading. There are 10 actors, and six play the main characters and four play ensemble roles. Scenic designer Paul Stiller’s set, except for the prison bars that skirt both sides, looks more like the setting for a panel discussion than a play. But because these are actual cases, playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen decided to let the stories tell themselves, and keep action and distraction to a minimum.
Thus, we are confronted before opening with 10 chairs: six in front for the main characters, and four on risers behind those. One seat, in front, stage right, is red, and a touch higher set than the other five. Delbert Tibbs (John Harris), the character who occupies this seat, is a poet and a narrator of sorts for The Exonerated. Delbert is a soft-spoken, intelligent, and exceptionally peaceful soul; but his experience prior to his arrest did nothing to prepare him for his incarceration. Traveling about the country in 1972, Delbert was handed a fantastic conundrum. He was stopped and deposed by a state trooper for the very crime he was later accused of; and the trooper, realizing this black man would likely be stopped again, actually gave Delbert a written statement saying that the officer had interrogated him and knew that he was not the perpetrator of the crime. But this did little to stop the Mississippi police from arresting him and having him sent back to Florida to stand trial for a man whose description had no resemblance to Delbert in the first place.
One by one, each tale told in The Exonerated gets more and more fantastic. Gary Ganger (David Ring), a produce grocer, was arrested and convicted for the killing of his own parents, whom he found in different places, their throats slashed. Kerry Max Cook (Eric Swenson) suffered the misfortune of being branded a recalcitrant by the local sheriff, and he was later declared a degenerate and homosexual in open court by the District Attorney and railroaded on a rape and murder charge.
Sunny (Marcia Edmundson) and her husband Jessie, stopped by officers while riding in a car driven by a cop killer, were both convicted of shooting the cops the driver killed. Jessie was executed during the next 13 years before Sunny was freed. Sunny herself, the only woman on Death Row in Florida at the time, was “entombed” in a makeshift cell because she could not be kept with the other inmates, all men, including her husband.
Robert Hayes (Dante Walker) was accused and convicted purely, it seems, because he was African American. And David Keaton (Lamont Reed) was 17 and eager to join the Seminary when he was arrested for robbery and murder of two off-duty policemen—for no other reason one might ascertain than that they needed somebody to convict.
This amazing cast is completed by Jane McNeill (who plays Mrs. Ganger and Mrs. Cook), Sherida McMullan (who plays Mrs. Georgia Hayes and one very biased judge), Ryan Brock (who plays assorted Prosecutors), and John Paul Middlesworth (who plays various policemen). These four performers sit behind and above the first six actors, as if in judgment; and they are constantly looking down on the accused. Racism, bigotry, police misconduct, judicial bias, and overburdened public defenders all play a part in travesties of justice for these defendants, and the horrors of their imprisonment are infuriating. Yet, in almost all of these six cases, those now free dwell not on what they went through, but what they now possess—all but the youngest, David, who was broken in prison. His personal relationship with his Maker was severed. Now he dwells, not on the loss, but on getting that relationship back.
Director Tony Lea has assembled a truly sensational cast for a play that should have made sensational headlines. The Exonerated is a difficult play, both for the performers and the audience; and it should be. Only by being enraged and saddened by these events can we keep them from ever happening again. But only by seeing the very lack of hatred and need for retribution in these six real people, can we ever believe we can.
Deep Dish Theater Company presents The Exonerated Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 2-4, 9-11, and 16-18, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 5 and 12, at 3 p.m.; and Wednesday, Nov. 15, at 7:30 p.m. in the space beside Branching Out at the Dillard’s end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $16 ($12 students and $14 seniors), except “Cheap Dish Night”on Nov. 2nd. 919/968-1515. Note: There will be four post-play discussions, following the show's Nov. 2nd, 5th, 9th, and 12th performances. Deep Dish Theater Company: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/current.htm.