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Review: 'The Exonerated' is compelling, chilling

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JENNIFER FARRAR | September 19, 2012 09:05 PM EST | AP

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NEW YORK — When justice really is blind, but in the wrong way, the weight of powerlessness can crush the spirits of ordinary people. Or the resilience of human nature can prevail. It all depends on the individual.

Ten years after its downtown debut, the compelling true-life drama about wrongful incarceration, "The Exonerated", has returned to Culture Project. It's a powerful indictment against flaws in the American legal system that put many innocent people on death row. The limited run that opened Wednesday night is presented in special association with The Innocence Project.

In 90 often harrowing minutes, the beautifully-crafted work affectingly presents the stories, told in their own words, of six real people who wrongly spent years on death row. The chilling script by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen consists entirely of text from actual interviews, letters, transcripts, case files and court records.

Bob Balaban directs a simple staging, with the cast facing the audience, seated on tall black stools. By turns in the spotlight, they read scripts or enact monologues. Balaban keeps a low-key atmosphere that makes the outrageous injustices all the more horrifying.

The tapestry of stories includes common threads of innocence and blind faith in the legal system, both betrayed in many ways. Actors also recite the words of the vindictive or indifferent law enforcement individuals who turned a blind eye to the truth. Prosecutorial misconduct, poverty and outright racism often played a role.

Lending star power is a rotating cast of celebrities. Performances during Sept. 17-23 feature Stockard Channing, Brian Dennehy, Delroy Lindo and Chris Sarandon. Real-life former inmate Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs is also on hand. Future actors are expected to include Steve Earle, John Forte, K'Naan, Lyle Lovett and Brooke Shields.

Lindo brings enormous grace and gravitas to his leadership role as poet Delbert Tibbs. Defining the prisoners' initial despair and their resilience, he intones, "How do we, the people, get outta this hole, what's the way to fight," adding, "It is not easy to be a poet here. Yet I sing. I sing."

Channing is marvelously affecting as Jacobs, who spent 15 years on death row for murder even though the real killer confessed after three years. Channing gives Jacobs an air of serenity and wonder, laced with bemusement, as she marvels, "I'm a vegetarian. How could you possibly think I would kill someone?"

Sarandon conveys a deeply sorrowful air as he movingly relates Kerry Max Cook's conviction at age 19, and the brutal conditions of his 22 years on Texas' death row. Gary Gauger, given a reflective and forgiving persona by Dennehy, was falsely convicted of murdering his parents, and ultimately had to take his appeal all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The permanent cast is also quite strong. Jim Bracchitta and Bruce Kronenberg are effectively smug and unpleasant in several law enforcement roles. Amelia Campbell is sweetly loving as two of the ex-convicts' understanding wives. Arrested when still a high-school student, David Keaton is played with melancholy hurt by Curtis McClarin. He could break your heart when he says quietly, "I had a relationship to God when I got in here, but somehow I've lost it."

JD Williams as Robert Earl Hayes and a sassy April Yvette Thompson as his wife provide some indignant comic relief, except that Hayes' story is as heartbreaking as the others, in the end.

While these six true stories are deeply touching, one can't help but wonder afterward how many more innocent people remain incarcerated, or have been executed.

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