The Hard Cell

The truth may not set you free, but it illuminates The Exonerated.

The death penalty is an obscenity in itself, and the ways in which it's applied are equally vile: the endless waiting on death row, where prisoners can sometimes see fellow inmates led to slaughter or hear the readying of the death equipment; the capriciousness of the appeals process; the countdown to the final moment, with the hope of reprieve a constant, desperate torment. And then the methods: sitting, masked and diapered, in the electric chair and being burned to death, or enduring the uncertainties of lethal injection -- which, according to some critics, can leave the condemned man conscious but paralyzed as his organs shut down. Even in a perfect legal system, where just verdicts were assured, these would be atrocities, and our legal system -- politicized, riddled with racism and shamelessly favoring the wealthy -- is anything but perfect.

In her book Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean described her experiences ministering to prisoners on death row and shone a strong, clear light on their suffering. But the men she counseled were guilty. The Exonerated, a theater piece put together by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, is about six people who spent anywhere from two to 21 years on death row and were then released. Four of the subjects were completely cleared; two others were set free after agreeing to pleas because the evidence against them was so questionable. Delbert Tibbs, a theological student, was locked up for three years on the inconsistent testimony of a sixteen-year-old who'd been raped and had seen her companion murdered. Gary Gauger discovered the bodies of his parents with their heads sawed off, was subjected to more than twenty hours of questioning -- during which he made the mistake of attempting to cooperate -- and was then tried and sentenced to death; the court that overturned his conviction three years later said there had never been probable cause to arrest him. Kerry Max Cook came within eleven days of his appointment with the executioner and was eventually allowed to plead his way out of prison because of police and prosecutorial misconduct. Subsequently, DNA evidence emerged implicating the victim's ex-boyfriend.

The most unsettling case explored here is that of Sonja, or Sunny, Jacobs, who, along with her husband, Jesse Tafero, was found guilty of killing two police officers and spent sixteen years on death row on the testimony of a man that she and Tafero had been traveling with, Walter Rhodes. Luckily for him, Rhodes had a criminal record. That meant he understood the system well enough to strike a deal with police. Jesse suffered a hideously bungled execution in 1990; Sunny was released two years later.

The cast of The Exonerated delivers a loud 
message.
The cast of The Exonerated delivers a loud message.

The Exonerated is woven together from police documents, trial transcripts and, above all, the words of the exonerated themselves. Sometimes the narrative gets confusing -- you forget momentarily just which of the victims said what or who was involved in which specific crime -- but for the most part, the dialogue is fascinating and the play flows smoothly. There's a lot less anger on the stage than you'd expect, and few complaints about injustice. Instead, you watch these people describe how they worked to understand what happened to them and retain their sanity in insane conditions. Most of them struggled to find some kind of light, a source of emotional strength, whether it was Christianity, a more nebulous spirituality or the love that Sunny and Jesse expressed for each other in their coded letters.

There are some very strong performances in the OpenStage cast, and a couple that are less polished but touching and effective in their naturalism. Deborah Marie Hlinka brings a strong, peaceful quality to the vegetarian hippie, Sunny; there's grace and power in Earlie Thomas's evocation of the lost poet, Delbert Tibbs. Herman Gaddy's melodious, preacherly intonations elevate his extraordinary speech about rain in the prison yard. L. Michael Scovel, Dan Weitz and George Jackson III all inhabit their characters with conviction, while Mary Zimmerman, Nicole Gawronski, Kyle Dyas and Charlie Ferrie do sterling work in the ensemble.

Poetry makes nothing happen, W.H. Auden once observed, and doubtless the same can be said of theater. But OpenStage should be thanked for bringing attention to an issue that mars our democracy. And surely if artists speak out strongly enough and long enough, something in the soul of the culture will change.

 
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