If you’re looking for a happy, light-hearted play, Midtown Productions’ The Exonerated is not it. And director Sheri Grace Wenger lets audiences know that right away.
The 90-minute play tells the story of six death row inmates who were exonerated for their crimes. Some of these people spent two years incarcerated, others 22.
Considering the serious subject matter, the set was fittingly stark — just a dozen or so metal chairs sat on the painted black stage. Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen from actual interviews, The Exonerated is a dialogue-heavy play that doesn’t need fancy sets or clever lighting and sound to carry it.
The play opens with a mixture of street sounds that could have been heard in Stomp mixed with sci-fi-like effects — before one of the actors (Adolphus Williams Sr.) recites poetry. He’s later introduced as former inmate Delbert Tibbs, and the poetry is lines he wrote. From there, each of the other wrongfully convicted, five men and one woman, begin to tell their story. All sitting on the stage together a spotlight shines on Gary Gauger (Brian Turner), who was convicted for murdering his parents in Illinois. Moving down the line you hear about Robert Hayes (Maurice McPherson) and the murder of a white 20-something girl; Kerry Max Cook (David Loar) and the murder of his neighbor; 18-year-old David Keaton’s (Keith H. Alston) death row sentencing; and Sunny Jacobs (Margaret Nyland) and her conviction based on a false confession from the actual murderer. And then there’s Tibbs, who spent time in jail for a murder and rape that he did not commit.
After the introduction of the people, the play then jumps back and forth, giving little nuggets of information about each person. More often then not, you’ll be so engrossed that you won’t want it to move to another character and his or her story.
As a dialogue rich play, The Exonerated succeeds or fails on the strengths of its actors — and in this case, the actors nail it. From the slight shaking of Brian Turner’s hands as he passionately speaks about his innocence to the tears of Margaret Nyland, getting caught in her throat, there’s an authenticity behind each performance. Even when the script seemed stilted or forced, the actors deliver their lines with conviction. David Loar’s delivery of the normally cringe-inducing phrase “all that and a bag of chips” worked as he described his coolness in the ’70s prior to his arrest. The line even garnered some laughs, which were quite possibly the only ones of the evening.
To ensure that nothing distracted from the characters’ stories, the lighting and sound were kept to a minimum — and rightly so. The lighting mainly consisted of a single spotlight shining on the person who was speaking at any given.
Unfortunately, the sound was too literal. As Nyland recalled Sunny Jacobs’ story, which involved a car crash and six gunshots, rounds echoed through the theater. There was no need for a canned track of a car crashing or the sound of a gun being fired. It would have been more effective if the sound of metal colliding into metal had been scraped completely, and if Nyland had made the gunshot sounds herself.
The space itself also added to the performance. Midtown’s church pews seating seemed almost ironic — and if we’re being honest slightly uncomfortable. But the space was intimate, and it needed to be. At times it seemed as if the actors were talking to individual audience members, an effort that managed to break down the barrier between the players and audience.
And it’s that personal connection that resonated the most.