In acting circles, death row has never been hipper. A-list movie and television luminaries -- Richard Dreyfuss and Danny Glover, Aidan Quinn and Mia Farrow, Jeff Goldblum and Gabriel Byrne -- have been doing time onstage, playing former inmates falsely accused of capital crimes. And the roster of those eager to join them just keeps growing: Christine Lahti, Tony Goldwyn, Rob Morrow, Elliott Gould and Judy Collins are among the well-known performers waiting to get into the act.
The object of their theatrical ardor is "The Exonerated," a new off-Broadway work based on the real-life experiences of five American men and one woman who were condemned to death and eventually had their convictions overturned. And while the 90-minute play, by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, offers some juicy monologues and poignant dramatic moments, what seems to be enticing all these famous faces to the stage has as much to do with the art of politics as of performance.
"It felt really rewarding to do something that had a political message," says Jill Clayburgh, who spent three weeks in "The Exonerated" in the fall and is about to return to the New York cast for another rotation. "I just felt that it is a very human way to express a political point. It isn't agitprop, but it certainly has a point of view, which, I think, people who are on the fence about the issue can still hear."
"The Exonerated" has been such a surprise hit with audiences and critics in New York that, a mere three months after opening, its producers have decided to mount a second production for the road. Tomorrow a three-city tour -- in anti- cipation of a more extensive national tour in the near future -- gets underway with a week-long run at the Warner Theatre. Here, a cast that includes Farrow, Brian Dennehy and Chad Lowe will lend its voices to the six who were spared execution -- and, in the larger sense, to the play's stand against capital punishment.
"This is a play that was mounted, no question about it, with the idea of influencing people," says Bob Balaban, who not only directed it but is one of its producers. "You come away from this realizing that the more people are screaming for the death penalty, the more likely you are going to trap an innocent person."
Theater with political ambition is of course nothing new. From Ibsen to Brecht, from social drama to out-and-out propaganda, playwrights have been addressing issues of the day for centuries. Even the concept of a production adapted straight from reality was pioneered decades ago: "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" and "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?" were plays gleaned from court and congressional committee transcripts.
But "The Exonerated" arrives as the latest example of an evolution in the political play. Austere in physical design, direct in narrative approach, these new works are being presented as emotion-laden tributes to a point of view. You could call the movement civic theater: They are plays like "The Vagina Monologues" and "The Guys," intended to galvanize a community with an uplifting message about the human spirit. Unlike more anarchic and angry forms of political theater of the past, these productions seek to educate more than incite, though whether they do anything other than reinforce audiences' existing beliefs is open to question. As Clayburgh observed about "The Exonerated": "It is mostly preaching to the converted, and everybody is very aware of that."
What distinguishes them, too, are the astonishing surges of star power that drive them. While the stagings tend to be modest, the luminaries who take to the projects transform them, quite literally, into causes celebres. Think of the dozens of famous actresses -- Diahann Carroll, Rosie Perez, Calista Flockhart, Julia Stiles and Julianna Margulies among them -- who've taken a turn over the years in the long-running "The Vagina Monologues," Eve Ensler's lyrical exploration of female empowerment. Or the first-rank actors -- like Susan Sarandon, Anthony LaPaglia, Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray -- who have rotated in and out of "The Guys," a two-person play by Anne Nelson about the firefighters of Sept. 11 that ran for a year at the Flea, a tiny off-off-Broadway theater in Lower Manhattan (and soon will be released as a motion picture).
For that matter, there's also been Moises Kaufman's "The Laramie Project," an investigation of the circumstances surrounding the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming. Although the play did not have a star-studded cast off-Broadway, the HBO version attracted a passel of well-known actors, including Christina Ricci, Janeane Garofalo, Peter Fonda and Camryn Manheim, some of whom were appearing in the briefest of cameos.
For celebrities, civic theater can be a painless method of lending their fame to an issue in a way that doesn't seem self-serving. Some like it so much that they pass from one project to another. Carol Ostrow, producing director of the Flea, says that she was trying to bring Marlo Thomas back for a spell in "The Guys" last fall, only to discover that Thomas was booked for "The Exonerated." "They stole some of my best actors," Ostrow says with a laugh. "It almost felt as if we were competing."
Audiences had deeply embraced "The Guys," which tells the true story of a journalist who agreed to help a New York fire captain compose the eulogies for several of the men he lost in the collapse of the twin towers. Performed on a bare stage, with scripts in hand and a smattering of props, it is the kind of minimalist theater that draws heavily on the emotional power of the real events it is dramatizing. In fact, the Flea tired of "The Guys" even though theatergoers hadn't. After a year-long run, it closed just before Christmas, having left the theater staff psychically drained.
"We felt it was getting more and more difficult to revisit the theme every night," Ostrow says. In a strange way, the grieving process explored in the play was becoming an anachronism, at least as far as the people who ran the Flea were concerned. "It was becoming too much for the staff," Ostrow adds, "because the experience of it had changed, although it had been very cathartic. It was becoming harder and harder to support it with enthusiasm."
In pieces that connect so elementally with day-to-day experience or strongly held political and moral beliefs, it's sometimes difficult to discern whether audiences are responding to the skill of the production or simply the topic it is examining. With "The Exonerated," Balaban argues, the performance can be appreciated on its own terms, even by those who don't necessarily share its sympathies.
"To the extent that it looked like proselytizing, we didn't go there," he says. The play, compiled from extensive interviews with the six exonerated prisoners it portrays, is a series of rapidly evolving vignettes, in which the falsely convicted tell their stories. Other cast members play police officers, defense lawyers, prosecutors and relatives. One thing that makes the piece such a draw for top-rank talent, Balaban contends, is a basic one: They're all good roles.
"It's because they're true stories without any axes to grind, and these parts are wonderful to play," the director says. "I mean, you get to inhabit another person's life."
Long ago, television became the mainstay for the true crime story. But clearly, real issues still have a place on the stage. Last month Dreyfuss, Glover and Mike Farrell traveled to Chicago and performed the play at the invitation of outgoingGov. George Ryan, who imposed a moratorium on executions in Illinois to allow for a review of all the state's death penalty cases. (On Saturday, Ryan commuted the sentences for everyone on the state's death row to life in prison.) In the crowd were 40 people from around the country who had been sentenced to death and set free after their convictions were reversed.
"It was a powerful evening," Balaban says, and further proof to him that it is the lives the play celebrates, and not the celebrities themselves, that give "The Exonerated" its meaning. "As I've told people," he adds, "these stories are more important than we are."