The Exonerated

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
Riverside Studios
(2006)

Publicity image

To quote a much- and over-used phrase, if you are only going to make it to the theatre once this year, go and see The Exonerated. This is the most powerful play in London, it literally has the ability to save lives, and thrown into the bargain you will have the chance the chance to see some big-name American movie stars.

If the paragraph above doesn't make it patently obvious, the British Theatre Guide, or this reviewer at least, is a big fan of a play that is emotionally disturbing but spiritually uplifting. We have reviewed it in New York twice and also on its British premiere in Edinburgh when in addition, we managed to interview Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.

The Exonerated tells the story of five men and a woman, all of whom were wrongly sentenced to death for murders that they did not commit. Between them, they spent over 100 years on Death Row watching their fellow inmates frying in the electric chair, while awaiting their own imminent deaths.

The play has been constructed using nothing but the words of these six people and also transcripts from the police investigations and court cases.

The whole forms a terrible indictment against the US justice system and the strongest possible case against the use of the death penalty, still so prevalent in the United States of America, although not so much in Illinois since the State Governor saw The Exonerated.

Ten actors sit on stools behind microphones, lined up on stage facing the audience. For an hour and a half, six of them play the parts of the accused murderers, while the remaining four, showing great versatility as character actors, fill in the gaps as family members and law officers.

The story is carried forward by pop poet but also accused murderer, Delbert Tibbs, who at the London opening was played with wit and feeling by British-born actor Delroy Lindo, best known for his work with Spike Lee and in particular, for Malcolm X.

Tibbs suffered from a severe case of racism, like two of his colleagues portrayed on the stage. In each case, a jury was happy to accept that all black men look the same and as near as makes no difference, all are murderers.

On this occasion the other two guests were also top film stars. Aidan Quinn, of Legends of the Fall and Michael Collins fame, plays the effete but harmless Kerry Max Cook.

He came from a good family and his story is particularly chastening since as he puts it, "if it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody". Combining a terrible story with what in the past had been known as gallows humour; he calmly relates his history, including a triple gang-rape in prison during which terrible messages were carved into his buttocks, where they remain today.

He goes even further in his relation of the injustice that resulted, talking about his brother, one of life's successes who "put himself right on Death Row with me" eventually taking to the bottle. He was murdered in a bar brawl, something that would not have happened had Kerry Max not been imprisoned.

The most powerful story of all is that of Sunny Jacobs, a tiny bird-like woman played by Stockard Channing, most recently a star in The West Wing, who does a very good impression of the original, who has played herself in the US, Scotland and London.

With her common-law husband, Jesse and two children, Sunny Jacobs, a tiny, sweet-natured hippy got caught up with a paroled criminal who shot his way out of trouble killing two policemen and blaming the couple.

Unbelievably, despite this man's confession to the crimes in 1979, Sunny was not release from prison for a further 13 years. To make the story infinitely more tragic, Jesse was executed but not before the electric chair had malfunctioned so that he receives three massive jolts of electricity and spent 13 1/2 minutes waiting to die, which he ultimately did horrifically, flames shooting from his head. And remember, this man did not commit the crime for which he was executed.

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen have done a wonderful job of interviewing exonerated inmates and particularly in encapsulating their lives in a carefully edited script. They have received great support from director Bob Balaban who has made the six stories absolutely seamless.

The Exonerated is not only a worthwhile play but also has the tension of the best detective or legal dramas. It is impossible to praise it too highly and you should not miss out on the chance to see it while it is in London.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher