'The Exonerated": After death row

"The Exonerated" (from left): Anthony Lawton, Akeem Davis, William Zielinski, David Alan Anderson.
"The Exonerated" (from left): Anthony Lawton, Akeem Davis, William Zielinski, David Alan Anderson. (MATT URBAN)
Posted: February 27, 2014

Every play hopes to be timely. And many playwrights want to change the world. The Exonerated, now in a stirring production by Delaware Theatre Company, goes after both goals.

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's play tells fact-based stories of five men and one woman sentenced to death and later exonerated, many after serving lengthy sentences. In mostly direct address, we hear the words of Delbert Tibbs (David Alan Anderson), Kerry Max Cook (Tony Lawton), Robert Hayes (Akeem Davis), Gary Gauger (William Zielinski), David Keaton (Frank X), and Sunny Jacobs (Megan Bellwoar). Segments reenact their arrests and interrogations, presenting scenes of gross prosecutorial misconduct, suppressed evidence, and confessions coerced or conveyed under duress.

I list their names because death-row exonerees have become commonplace in the U.S. (144 victims of the justice system and counting) and because each deserves recognition if not tribute. Like Antigone, but unlike Nelson Mandela or Václav Havel, these prisoners do not rise back into a position of favor; instead, most struggle to gain readmission into society.

The exceptional cast delivers subtle, raw portrayals under David Bradley's balanced, matter-of-fact direction, which is given further emotional power and nuance by Shon Causer's lighting and Mike Hahn's sound design.

Anger commingles with sadness, confusion, fury, and righteousness, none of it eclipsed by the bit of joy and hope (radiated by Bellwoar) in each convict's release. I continued to feel these emotions right until I read that Hayes returned to prison in 2004 after confessing to a similar murder in 1987. (In fairness, it should be noted that Blank and Jensen wrote their play in 2000).

Despite that, this production remains relevant, in no small part because the Delaware legislature is considering a bill to repeal that state's death penalty. And Hayes' continued inclusion as an unvarnished exoneree reminds of Jurist William Blackstone's 1765 sentiment that is it "better to set 10 guilty men free than convict one innocent." That idea here endures as much as it disquiets, and its import in The Exonerated shows that one play can still change perceptions, if not the world.


The Exonerated

Presented at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water St., Wilmington, through March 9.

Tickets: $35 to $50. Information: 302-594-1100 or www.delawaretheatre.org.

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