By participating in live theatre, people have a chance to discover new aspects of themselves. The audience of any play sees a world removed from them, hopefully expanding their sense of empathy in return. Big Dawg Productions is doing exactly that with “The Exonerated.” (Read encore’s preview here.) The harrowing half-play, half-documentary shines an uncompromising light on the pitiful state of America’s criminal justice system, proving, sadly, there is more than one way to take a person’s life.
Interweaving six true stories of people wrongfully convicted of crimes and their time lost on death row, “The Exonerated” explores pointed accounts that are sharp and shaped with great care and compassion by writers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. The play is constructed in monologue-vignette style, with a core cast playing the convicted. A well-assembled ensemble jumps in and out of an endless number of loved ones, lost ones, cops and accomplices. It’s a tight-knit tale, which could have succumbed to melodrama if not properly controlled. Luckily, director Josh Bailey has led the production into success. There is a balanced honesty and sadness to the show without giving into the bleakness it depicts. Its plot may be dark, but its message is certainly about the light which hope provides.
The production manages to put the audience in the throes of confinement, as captive as the play’s characters. The feat is achieved by the combination of Donna Troy and Jeff Loy’s skills in set design. Troy plays with scope and depth that perfectly transforms the black box theater. Crime-scene tape wraps around chairs, which wrap around the room as the theater merges with the reality of the play. They trap the viewer in the same cell as the viewed.
Upon entering, audience members may be taken aback as to where they can sit. A jury box is built to the left of the stage and a metallic painted row of bars line the right. Seats are available in these areas, though the night I caught the show, questions were raised as to if they were open to the public. I recommend filling them, if not for a different perspective to view the play, it will surely help the blocking.
Blocked in a promenade style, actors appear free-range. When located in a sparsely filled spot, it leads to moments falling flat due to where they happened to be staged. At times the back of the actors’ heads will be all some audience members can see.
Because the subject matter is based on true accounts, actors must play to the authenticity of every situation; it’s crucial. An innocent person doesn’t believe the system could fail him as poorly as it in fact does. The cast here is more than capable of anchoring the true horrors these real-life people had to face and endure. Their introduction is clever and something I will not give away here, but let’s just say it’s handled in a very natural and human manner. Victims are all around us, and audiences never know a stranger’s story.
The audience follows the fall and continued fall of characters, one after the other, as they lay out their cases: victims of circumstance, wrong place, wrong time—worse yet, wrong place, wrong time and wrong color.
Lupin Byers takes on the task of giving life to the tragic story of Sunny Jacobs with stunning grace. The happy hippie mother of two loses everything, due to a fabricated affidavit for the murder of a police officer from a seedy acquaintance (J.R. Rodriguez, in one of his many great roles here). Jacobs and her husband fight for freedom and normality, while awaiting their deaths. The sweetness of how they make love through letters written in Japanese brings such joy, and it’s just a win for Byers. It can only be matched by how she sorely and elegantly plays it when she realizes she must tell her husband’s story as well as her own. It hits the audience hard.
Rich Deike as Gray Gauger and Julian Scober as Robert Hayes are both monstrous examples of how arrests are closer to a met quota than justice served. Both men portray victims of the whole good-cop, bad-cop routine, showing that torture takes more forms than physical pain. Deike gives a real stand-out performance as a man accused of murdering his mother and father. Beat down by the barking of an abusive cop (J.R. Rodriguez once again ducking and weaving seamlessly between roles), he gives a false statement that hinders his freedom. While it could be played over-the-top, it’s balanced with an earned pathos.
Ben Hart as David Keaton shows us a life lost from incarceration. A man of great faith finds himself abandoned by God. A howled cough of a prayer is all he can muster and it truly shows what injustice looks like.
Bringing swagger for days is Charles Auten as Kerry Max Cook. Auten certainly has a strong stage presence and he hits all the emotional beats needed. Yet, because of the intimacy of the venue, a lot of it plays too big and at times crosses over to hammy, mugging for the audience.
Robert Bellamy as Delbert Tibbs is a fellow exonerated, but more so he seems like an overarching narrator for the drama—almost disembodied from even his own story. His voice brings reverence to the material, but the fact he is reading from a script onstage is a notable distraction to pacing and line delivery.
Making up the ensemble outside of J.R Rodriguez is Heather M. Lindquist-Bull, Anthony Corvino and Tyana Rumbeau. They truly give their all, in a whirlwind of roles. Lindquist-Bull as Kerry’s wife crumbles when even she questions his innocence. It’s aching to watch Corvino as Jesse Jacobs carry the weight of ruining his own life and his wife’s life. Tyana Rumbeau brings a deep understanding of the predetermined fate her husband befalls as a black man accused. Rodriguez’s most memorable role is something of an evil Matlock railroading Kerry’s case.
It’s long thought that justice is blind because it is fair. Though, it’s not blind—just blindfolded. What Bailey and Big Dawg have set out to do with Wilmington’s debut production of “The Exonerated” is to remove the blindfold from justice’s eyes and from the audience’s as well. The story may be painful to watch, but it’s a must-see and a needed one, regardless.