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Revisiting Death Row: 'The Exonerated,' and the American Theater Wing Honors the Redgraves

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To know that the American justice system is flawed, just say OJ. That name is invoked in the theater piece The Exonerated, now revived for its 10th anniversary at the Culture Project with its script by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, woven from court transcripts, interviews and testimonies of those jailed and sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit. At Sunday's matinee, a rotating cast of actors: Stockard Channing, Brian Dennehy, Chris Sarandon, Delroy Lindo -- joined in with Jim Bracchitta, Amelia Campbell, Bruce Kronenberg, Curtis McClarin, April Yvette Thompson, JD Williams -- to tell horrific tales of incarceration.

Particularly searing is Sonia Jacobs' story which involves the death by defective electric chair of her "husband" Jesse, wrongly convicted of shooting two cops, even after the real killer confessed. You need only to hear about the smoke rising from his head to recognize the utter inhumanity of the death penalty. As directed by Bob Balaban, this is a fast paced, often funny hour and a half, the ironies of justice gone awry softening hard truths. At play's end, Stockard Channing introduced her character, the real Sonny Jacobs, who will play herself next week following Brooke Shields. "I am a lucky one," she said.

When asked, why revive The Exonerated now, Culture Project's founder and artistic director Allan Buchman pointed out the recent release of the West Memphis Three, who had to plead guilty of the crime of murdering three kids back in 1993 in order to be set free after nearly twenty years imprisoned. The case is the subject of the Paradise Lost documentaries, and a new book, Life After Death penned by Damien Echols, freed from Death Row. The three men now wait exoneration.

On Monday night, The American Theater Wing honored the Redgrave family at their annual gala. Performances by Laura Osnes, Ron Raines, Will Chase, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Andrew Keenan-Bolger preceded Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Liam Neeson, Franco Nero, and others of the family taking the stage at the Plaza Hotel to remember Natasha Richardson, Corin Redgrave, and Lynn Redgrave in their thank yous. John Benjamin Hickey presented the award, recounting how he first fell in love with Natasha Richardson when they worked together in Cabaret (1997). "I'm married and you are gay" said Natasha. Well, there were obstacles. And Liam Neeson was a formidable foe.

Many guests worked with the Redgraves. Joan Didion remembered Vanessa Redgrave's special one-night performance of her theater version of The Year of Magical Thinking at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Jessica Chastain co-starred with Vanessa Redgrave in Ralph Fiennes' movie Coriolanus. She'd had a tough day rehearsing for the soon to open revival of The Heiress and realized she'd have to pull herself together for the evening tribute. It's Vanessa Redgrave, she thought, and donned a spectacular gold Oscar de la Renta for the occasion. "If I had to say one word about Vanessa Redgrave," she said, "it would be magical."

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.