I was thrilled when I heard last year that the Weekend Theater would attempt “The Exonerated,” a play I had seen off-Broadway in 2003. Returning from seeing that play at 45 Bleeker Theater in New York, I had told anyone who would listen that if they found themselves in the Big Apple they should check out the work, done in a dramatic reading format and featuring a rotating cast of “name” actors. We had caught it with Bebe Neuwirth and Chad Lowe (Mr. Hilary Swank). It came down hard on the death penalty by pointing out six cases in which injustice had sent the accused to death row, before some late change with the evidence or some happenstance spared them. In one case, it still didn’t save the husband of one of the falsely accused.
No matter on which side of the death penalty anyone fell, I thought, “The Exonerated” would be a well-spent two hours.
That same feeling exists after seeing the Weekend Theater’s version on Friday night. It’s not an off-Broadway-level performance, but even David Kaczynski, the brother of the so-called “Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski, declared that Friday’s show was a “remarkable” performance.
The problems with the Weekend Theater’s version are mostly technical ones. Director Frank Butler stages the play differently than the off-Broadway dramatic reading (in New York the actors were sitting in chairs in front of a black backdrop and reading from the script). The actors deliver memorized monologues, and lighting works with actors’ movements to create visual drama. But the lighting and movement were too often out of synch, and the many pitch-black moments lingered too long. The show could use a steadier flow of fade-outs and fade-ins. Movement while the lights were out seemed too bustling. Sound effects cut off too abruptly.
A few lines were missed here and there, too. This may not have been as noticeable to the average viewer, though, as all the dialog (gleaned from actual testimony or interviews with the “Exonerated” subjects) is delivered conversationally.
Some performances are terrific. Alan Douglas, whose character, Gary Gauger, was accused of killing his mother and father, has never been better. Anne Stermock, who has a growing local resume, captured the flower-child mother Sunny Jacobs, whose continual wrong-place, wrong-time luck landed her on Florida’s death row. Drew Ellis is good in telling his story of Texas convict Kerry Max Cook; it’s only when Ellis’ Cook was in conversation with other actors on the stage that he went slightly over the top. Jermaine McClure brings a Cuba Gooding Jr. exuberance to his role of Robert. Gregory S. Chatman has command most of the time as the prison poet Delbert Tibbs, whose moving lines anchor the other monologues and bring the play to a fitting close. We’re leaving a lot of names out, but rest assured there wasn’t a bad performance in the bunch.
David Kaczynski offered one of the more stirring talkbacks the Weekend Theater has had. Besides his own story of the anguish of having to turn in his brother and then fight to keep him off death row, he told the audience what eventually led him to lead New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty and to give these talks around the country. He recounted the story of a troubled Vietnam vet who was eventually executed in California; the African-American man had attacked an elderly woman who later died from a heart attack. Unlike his brother, Kaczynski said, this man didn’t have off high-profile lawyers to argue his case and keep him off death row.
Of “The Exonerated,” Kaczynski said, “It’s a powerful indictment of the criminal justice system, and this makes the strongest case against the death penalty. With the death penalty, as you see, there is no margin for error.”
In the 30-plus years since the death penalty was restored in 38 states, 121 people have served time on death row before being exonerated. “What we don’t know is how many innocent people have been executed,” Kaczynski said.
As Kerry Max Cook says of his circumstances, “If it happened to me, it can happen to anybody.”
Catch “The Exonerated” these next two Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Call 374-3761 for reservations.