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Friday, October 11, 2002

New Play Includes Story of Kerry Cook


Someone Else Committed Their Crimes 

By BEN BRANTLEY 

One of them says that as soon as he returns home, his instinct is to lock his door because it has become natural for him to feel locked up. Another describes the daily ordeal of taking a shower and seeing his scars, including the obscene words that were carved into his buttocks by fellow prisoners. "The State of Texas executed me over a thousand times, man," he says, "and it just keeps doin' it." 


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company 
The New York Times 

October 11, 2002, Friday

SECTION: Section E; Part 1; Page 3; Column 1; Movies, Performing Arts/Weekend Desk 


These last words, from an intense and deeply affecting new documentary play called "The Exonerated," are uttered in a quiet voice that mixes resignation with enduring astonishment. The speaker is Richard Dreyfuss, and he is reading an account by Kerry Max Cook, who spent 22 years on death row for a murder he did not commit. Though Mr. Dreyfuss is a famously flashy performer, he delivers Mr. Cook's observations without dramatic flourishes. The actor, for the moment, has vanished. And the words, and the hurt behind them, do seem to slip directly under your skin, testaments to the idea that some scars never disappear. 

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's "Exonerated," which opened last night at 45 Bleecker Theater, is an artfully edited anthology of interviews with six former death row prisoners who were all discovered to be innocent of the crimes for which they were incarcerated. 

The mission of this work, clearly, is to edify, to shake the complacency of Americans who feel that unjust imprisonment is found only under totalitarian governments in foreign lands. "The Exonerated" is, in other words, a worthy enterprise, for which a fashionable cluster of right-minded stars, including Jill Clayburgh and Sara Gilbert, have been enlisted. (Other celebrity performers are to replace them later.) 

Yet theatergoers for whom the adjective worthy is a signal to buy another round of tickets to "Mamma Mia!" should reconsider. There is no reek of piety or creak of didacticism about "The Exonerated," which has been directed with elegant spareness by Bob Balaban. It is, on its own terms, thoroughly involving theater, while reminding you that real life has a way of coming up with resonant metaphors, grotesque ironies and cruel coincidences that no dramatist would dare invent. 

"The Exonerated" has been staged as a concert reading, with 10 performers seated behind music stands bearing their scripts. Many of the readers have obviously memorized their roles, to which they bring a hypnotic and seemingly ego-free focus. There are no isolated moments that scream "watch me," no fancy tics and quavers to pump up the emotional volume. 

Such modesty suits "The Exonerated," which tells stories that require no artificial heightening. The first part of the evening is principally devoted to jaw-dropping accounts, delivered with matter-of-factness, of interrogations, arrests and trials. Steeped in retrospective disbelief and disorientation, these stories inevitably evoke the harrowing opening chapters of "The Trial." 

Three of the convicted men are black, and for them in particular, the world might have been created by Franz Kafka. As Delbert Tibbs (Charles Brown), a former seminary student convicted of a rape and murder in Florida, says, "As I sometimes tell people, if you're accused of a sex crime in the South and you're black, you probably shoulda done it, you know." 

Embodied with wry gravitas by Mr. Brown, Mr. Tibbs is the play's philosopher in residence, whose poetic ruminations frame the accounts of the other speakers. Yet all of the title characters of "The Exonerated" have become philosophers by necessity, trying to find logic and design in what has happened to them. 

Gary Gauger (Jay O. Sanders), an organic farmer convicted of murdering his parents, is led to ponder the blurred lines between reality and perception. Other responses run from a shriveling of religious faith to an odds-defying affirmation of it. These two poles are embodied persuasively by Curtis McClarin as David Keaton, who loses his cherished religion on death row, and by Ms. Clayburgh as Sunny Jacobs. 

Ms. Jacobs's companion, Jesse Tafero, was electrocuted for the crime of which both were accused, the shooting of two law officers. Yet as Ms. Jacobs speaks of her wish to be "a living memorial," Ms. Clayburgh radiates a self-surprising and sincere joy. 

To lend dramatic variety, outside voices are occasionally introduced, from those of interrogating police officers (Bruce Kronenberg and Philip Levy) to family members and lawyers. In some cases, this parceling out of roles leads to confusion and can distract from dramatic flow. 

But there is welcome, tension-releasing interplay between Robert Earl Hayes (David Brown Jr.) and his wife, Georgia (April Yvette Thompson), as they describe the jumpy rhythms of Mr. Hayes's return to civilian life. And the mostly underused Ms. Gilbert, as the woman who marries Mr. Cook after his release from prison, has a heartbreaking moment in which she describes her first impressions of a man frozen in the styles of 22 years earlier. 

Films and television movies inspired by similar subjects usually focus on the legal and detective work that frees the prisoner, building to a climax of deliverance. This is not what "The Exonerated" is about, and it spends far more time on lives that exist in the extended shadows of death sentences, even after prison. 

Ms. Clayburgh, as Ms. Jacobs, asks the audience to perform a sobering exercise. "I'll give you a moment just to reflect," she says of her years of incarceration. "From 1976 to 1992, just remove that entire chunk from your life." In asking you to stare into that abyss, and to sense even slightly its gravitational pull, "The Exonerated" reminds you that some American nightmares are never over. 

THE EXONERATED 

By Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen; directed by Bob Balaban; production design/technical supervisor, Tom Ontiveros; costume coordinator, Sara J. Tosetti; original music and sound by David Robbins; production stage manager, Thomas J. Gates. Presented by the Culture Project, Dede Harris, Morton Swinsky, Mr. Balaban, Allan Buchman, in association with Patrick Blake and David Elliott. At 45 Bleecker Theater, 45 Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village. 

WITH: Jill Clayburgh (Sunny Jacobs), Richard Dreyfuss (Kerry Max Cook), Sara Gilbert (Sue Gauger and Sandra), Jay O. Sanders (Gary Gauger), Charles Brown (Delbert Tibbs), David Brown Jr. (Robert Earl Hayes), Bruce Kronenberg (Male Ensemble No. 1), Philip Levy (Male Ensemble No. 2), Curtis McClarin (David Keaton) and April Yvette Thompson (Georgia Hayes, Judge, Paula and Prosecutor). 
http://www.nytimes.com 


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company 
The New York Times 

October 6, 2002, Sunday, Late Edition - Final 

Convicted, Condemned And Innocent 

By CURTIS ELLIS; Curtis Ellis covers entertainment for the I.E. America Radio Network. 

COERCED confessions, conflicting DNA evidence and overturned convictions are the subjects of newspaper headlines. They are also elements of "The Exonerated," a play about six wrongfully convicted death row inmates, starring Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh and Sara Gilbert. Developed by two young actors from interviews with former prisoners, it opens on Thursday at 45 Bleecker Street under Bob Balaban's direction. 

The play follows the characters from arrest through imprisonment to life after release, and the words the actors speak are from the exonerated themselves. Other cast members portray judges, police officers and lawyers, their lines taken from court and police records. Mr. Dreyfuss plays Kerry Max Cook, a Texas man sentenced to death for the murder of a woman in his apartment complex. He spent 22 years in prison before DNA evidence proved his innocence. 

Ms. Clayburgh appears as Sonya Jacobs, known as Sunny, who was convicted along with her common-law husband, Jessie Joseph Tafero, of murdering a Florida policeman and a Canadian constable in 1976. Ms. Jacobs was released 16 years later, after the real killer confessed. 

At one point, Ms. Clayburgh, as Sunny, talks about prison letters the couple exchanged. "I saved not only the letters, but the envelopes, because anything that he touched, or that he wrote on, or that he licked with his tongue, I was keeping," Sunny says. "I existed on those letters." 

Jessie writes: "You're the strongest female I've ever known. Hand and glove, you know. Never be lonesome, we're only separated by miles. This won't last either, believe that." 

In 1990, two years before Sunny's release, Jessie Tafero was electrocuted. The chair malfunctioned and flames shot from his head after three jolts of electricity. 

The authors of "The Exonerated," Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, who are both in their 20's, say they decided to create the play during a conference on the death penalty. Ms. Blank had previously campaigned against capital punishment. At the conference, they heard an inmate on the telephone recounting his story of wrongful conviction. "We had a light-bulb moment," Ms. Blank said in a recent interview, "with this idea of going around the country and interviewing innocent people who had gotten off death row." 

Ms. Blank, who is also a writer, grew up in New Haven and Washington; Mr. Jensen is from Detroit Lakes, a town in western Minnesota. They married while working on "The Exonerated" and live in the East Village. Ms. Blank said that, among other reasons, she is opposed to capital punishment because "there is always a possibility of human error, so you're going to execute innocent people." 

Mr. Jensen said he had found that "the most disturbing thing about it is that it's applied racially, so it evokes the worst kind of racism in this country." 

Ms. Blank and Mr. Jensen said they began working on "The Exonerated," their first play, two and a half years ago. They did a preliminary series of telephone interviews with 40 former death row prisoners, and chose the ones they wanted to meet. The Culture Project, one of the producers, gave them $1,000 in seed money and offered the Bleecker Street theater for staged readings. 

Using cash from their savings, donations from friends and small grants, Ms. Blank and Mr. Jensen went on the road, from Illinois, to Texas, to Florida, often sleeping in their rented car. "We'd do an interview for two or three hours, and drive like heck to the next one," Ms. Blank said. 

Three months and 300 pages of transcripts later, they began editing the material in workshops with actors. Unsure about what the interviews would yield, they had not planned on writing a documentary theater piece. But Ms. Blank said that the playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith, who has created plays from verbatim interviews, had been an influence on her since high school. "I think documentary theater is an incredible form if you're rigorous with it," Ms. Blank said, "but it can become dictation." 

Mr. Jensen took the script to Mr. Balaban, an actor and sometime producer who had directed him in Arthur Kopit's play "Y2K" at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1999. "I knew when I picked it up and read the first page," Mr. Balaban remembered, "that there was something really important about it for what it had to say." 

He agreed to direct, and called some of his famous friends -- people he had acted with in films -- Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon ("The Cradle Will Rock"), Steve Buscemi ("Ghost World") and Mr. Dreyfuss ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind") for readings in the fall of 2000. (Mr. Balaban said he had commitments from Mr. Robbins, Ms. Sarandon, Mr. Buscemi, Alec Baldwin and Peter Weller to appear later in the current run.) 

After the readings two years ago, Mr. Balaban said, he encouraged the playwrights to "dig up testimony from the exoneration trials as well as the original convictions" and add theatrical elements to what were essentially intercut monologues delivered by performers sitting on stools. A result, the director said, is that cast members begin to tell their stories, "and then, as in story theater, they suddenly start acting out their trial in front of you." 

The playwrights hope "The Exonerated" will provoke debate. But, Ms. Blank said, there is more to it than politics. "These stories have so much to teach us -- not just about the legal system and the death penalty," she said, "but also about humanity, about strength, about how you learn to survive, about courage." 

The Exonerated 
45 Bleecker Street, East Village. 
In previews; opens on Thursday. 
http://www.nytimes.com

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