Playwright: Erik Jensen, Jessica Blank
At: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark
Contact: ( 773 ) 338-2177; $15, $12 seniors and students
Runs through: October 15
BY CATEY SULLIVAN
The Exonerated is as close as you can come to a critic-proof show. Based on interviews and testimony from six people wrongfully convicted or murder and sentenced to death, the play documents the brutal—and often intentional—injustices that will never be rectified.
The men and women of The Exonerated will never erase the gang rapes they endured in prison, raise the children who grew up without them or say goodbye to the family members who died while they were locked up.
Their stories—pulled into a documentary for the stage by playwrights Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank—are authentic tragedies. They are also profoundly inspiring, as they reveal just how resilient the human spirit can be.
Yet as urgent and authentically harrowing as it is, The Exonerated is a flawed drama.
Ironically, the playwrights succeed in letting politics upstage the humanity of the piece. As sure as a right-wing politician at an anti-abortion rally, The Exonerated lets you know exactly where your morals on the death penalty should be. That also focuses a hot-button political issue on the human beings behind the politics.
The Exonerated isn't preachy—the cases it brings out are gut-wrenching and inherently dramatic. But there's no doubt that we're being told exactly where we should stand on the death penalty. For a theater piece, that's problematic: Most of us bristle mightily when told what to believe—even if we already believe it.
It's also worth nothing that one of the exonerated portrayed in the piece, Gary Gauger, was never on death row. Nine months after being convicted of murdering his parents in 1994 ( and eventually pardoned after a pair of motorcycle gang members were convicted of the crime ) , his case was taken up on appeal and his death sentence reduced to life in prison. Gauger's story is a mind-boggling illustration of the kind of railroading, torture and officially-sanctioned deceit that poisons the judicial system. But to present him as one of a group of exonerated death-row inmates smacks of propaganda. There's no questioning the injustice of Gauger's ordeal, but a stint on death row wasn't part of it.
Directed by Greg Kolack ( whose strongest work has always been with disturbing true-life dramas ) , the cast brings vivid life to six individuals whose lives were indelibly shaped by the kind of willful injustice one usually associates with totalitarian dictatorships.
Especially effective is Chuck Spencer as Kerry Max Cook, who spent 20 years in a Texas prison for rape and murder before he was cleared by DNA evidence. JoAnn Montemurro also stands out as Sunny Jacobs, who remained on death row for almost 13 years after the actual killer—a man Sunny and her husband had been with at the time of the crime—confessed.