March 5, 2007
The characters in "The Exonerated" come from different backgrounds
BY DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA, Theater Critic, St. Paul Pioneer Press
The characters in "The Exonerated" come from different backgrounds. They're
black and white, male and female, hippies and Army vets and operators of
They were all convicted of murders they didn't commit. They were all
sentenced to death. They were all released. And all of their stories are
If you're looking for a balanced and dispassionate examination of crime and
punishment in the United States, this isn't it. But if you want some
compelling and highly personalized stories of how the American justice
system has broken down, then Frank Theatre's current production will provide
plenty to think about.
Staged readers-theater style - in the vein of "The Vagina Monologues" or
"Love Letters" - "The Exonerated" places 10 actors on an essentially bare
stage, sitting on chairs with music stands holding scripts in front of them.
Without benefit of set or props or much in the way of interaction between
the performers, there are only the words and the stories.
And the stories are fascinating. There's Kerry Max Cook, who shares horrific
and harrowing accounts of a bungled trial and 22 years of almost-unspeakable
horrors on death row. There's Sunny Jacobs, who was convicted and condemned
for the murder of two police officers. She was exonerated, but not before
the sentence of her common-law husband, Jesse Tafero, was carried out in one
of Florida's most notoriously botched electric-chair executions.
And there are others. People in the wrong place at the wrong time. People
who didn't understand the system. People with bad luck, bad instincts or bad
attorneys. Their stories are told mostly in their own words, gleaned from
interviews conducted by the play's creators, Macalester College graduates
Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen.
In its original off-Broadway staging and then in a later national tour that
came through the Twin Cities, "The Exonerated" was a celebrity stop-off,
where marquee names would spend a few weeks rotating in and out of the
production. The Frank production - the first local staging of the work -
uses a permanent, skilled cast of local actors who had a bad night the
Saturday evening I attended.
Grant Richey, playing Cook, lost his place a couple of times and was caught
casting panicked glances at his script. As Jacobs, Virginia Burke muffed a
line at a critical emotional juncture. And many of the other 10 cast
members, caught between the crutch of having the script in front of them and
the desire to "act" the words, seemed to slip gears.
It was probably just an off night rather than under-preparation - the
performance immediately after opening night traditionally is a rocky one.
But in a show like this, with no distraction from the stage dressing, such
slip-ups are magnified and threaten to suck the vitality right out of a
show, rendering it more reportage than performance.
The company is better than what they showed at this particular performance.
But they're saved by the stories they tell. They're gritty and haunting, and
they linger long after 90 minutes of "The Exonerated."
Source : St. Paul Pioneer Press