[Most of the following text was culled from my first review of The Exonerated in its initial presentation ten years ago. Given the nature of the production, which is essentially a music-stand and high backed-stools reading with nothing much in the way of staging, and the reviewer’s sensibility then and now, my opinion hasn’t changed much.]
It will certainly work for some.
"The Exonerated", a documentary play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, whose dialogue is assembled entirely from transcripts of interviews, police interrogations, courtroom proceedings, is, so to quote the press release, "about the innocence of people who were accused of heinous crimes they did not commit and paid a price too horrible to imagine." The press release goes on to say, "The extraordinary stories of these former death row inmates illuminate the realities of the way our justice system works and teach us about our human capacities both for cruelty and compassion." Which is probably true.
But how deeply it actually moves you will depend entirely upon your susceptibility to an agit-prop agenda. For within fifteen minutes the point of the evening is clear: To say, "Oh, how awful" and make you say, "Oh, how awful," too. To the point, perhaps, of contributing to whatever funds are set up to help such victims of the system and sharing with others who might not be convinced of the need to know of this inequity and see this play.
I don’t mean to minimize the righteousness of the intention, nor its legitimacy…nor even to say that a sophisticated and savvy audience member, hip to the cause, won’t be touched anyway by the simple evocation of human poignancy. Many are. It is, after all, back where it originated, at the Culture Project, for a 10th Anniversary Production; there has to be more than just sentiment behind that.
I do, however, mean to give the consumer fair warning…if you’re of a disposition to say, "Okay, I get it," to perceive each separate case history as but a variation on a theme, to feel that you don’t need to give an entire evening to a message clear not long after the start…then "The Exonerated" is probably not one for your must-see list.
That caution out of the way, the production, directed by the actor Bob Balaban, is rendered about as effectively as these things can be. Conceived as a minimally staged reading, the better to accommodate a revolving door of guest stars from the world of film and teevee, who needn’t have to sweat being off-book, fitting into a large ensemble–the week I saw the show, Brian Dennehy and Stockard Channing, acquitting themselves beautifully, were the stars du jour. Pacing, lighting, nuance, attention to detail, all are delivered with professional assurance, doing the cause proud.
And now it’s up to you whether or not to partake in the joys of feeling the pain…