Restored to life. Now there's an experience truly justifying journalism's eternal query, "How did you feel?" Judging from the testimony of six souls in "The Exonerated," who lived undeservedly for years in the shadow of the electric chair, one gets the sense you'd feel, well, everything. The response to having your execution date wiped clean from the calendar seems far more complicated than might be expressed in the initial outpouring of disbelieving tears.
There is ecstatic release at first, but then come fury, sleeplessness, numbness, depression. Languishing in death's waiting room, contemplating the ultimate penalty for something you didn't do, may just be the most withering, devastating, clarifying fate that can befall a person. "The State of Texas executed me over a thousand times, man," declares one of the freed prisoners, as impersonated on the Warner Theatre stage. "And it just keeps on doing it."
Once the hangman looms, it seems, he never leaves your side. And if you learn nothing more from the 90 minutes of eloquent straight talk in "The Exonerated," count yourself a fortunate ticket holder. This stark, spellbinding play, compiled from interviews with people condemned and later cleared in the murders of cops, relatives, acquaintances and strangers, is a profoundly moving excursion through the cracks in the justice system. And though the production makes no effort to conceal its disgust with the death penalty, the stories of these lucky unlucky people stand apart from the rhetorical heat of the capital punishment debate. These are rallying cries from the dark side.
If the writers of "The Exonerated," Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, had dreams of being part of a wider debate, they've made a success of that already. Over the weekend in Illinois, Gov. George Ryan -- who last month invited actors from the New York production to perform the piece at a Chicago benefit -- commuted the sentences of all 167 inmates on the state's death row to life imprisonment.
The controversial decision, which has deeply upset the families of the murder victims, certainly didn't come about as a result of a performance; the commutations occurred after a three-year review and the conclusion by the governor that the system was too prone to mistakes. But by the same token, it's clear that "The Exonerated" makes a persuasive piece of supplementary evidence.
The play, directed with skillfully delicate touches by Bob Balaban, is presented with minimal artifice. Bathed in overhead spotlights, the 10 actors who play the ex-prisoners and their accusers, defenders, friends and lovers are seated in a single row across the stage. The two end seats, reserved for the actors portraying the various lawyers and police officers, are on raised platforms a few feet above the other performers; there's no doubt as to who is holding the upper hand -- or who are seen as the bad guys -- as the stories unfold.
No props or sets are used; the actors are in street clothes, with music stands in front of them for their scripts. (Most of the time they recite from memory.) The only dramatic effects are in the recorded sounds of cell doors, rainstorms and the chilling cacophony generated by a functioning electric chair.
"The Exonerated" proceeds as a multilevel conversation, primarily between us and the falsely accused, played by a stirring ensemble, including some very familiar faces. Brian Dennehy is Gary Gauger, a farmer wrongly convicted of slitting the throats of his father and mother; Chad Lowe has the role of Kerry Max Cook, given the death penalty in the murder of a young woman, and Mia Farrow is Sunny Jacobs, the only woman on the panel, who was sentenced to die in the slayings of two policemen in Florida. Three other terrific actors, Chad L. Coleman, William Jay Marshall and Ed Blunt, play black men whose death sentences in the South were thrown out after murder convictions that appeared to hinge chiefly on the color of their skin.
Blank and Jensen, a husband-and-wife team, did the interviewing and the editing. They have put together their script with such sensitivity and self-assurance that the distinct voices have been preserved. What they have amassed is a trove of hard-edged, hard-earned bits of wisdom. "I sometimes tell people," Marshall says in the role of Delbert Tibbs, who spent years on death row in Florida, "if you're accused of a sex crime in the South and you're black, you probably should have done it, you know, because your [expletive] is gonna be guilty."
The performances are unfussy and thoroughly convincing. Lowe, for instance, is sensational as Cook. To listen to the actor recount the story of the unrelated murder of Cook's brother -- and of the awful accusation that his mother leveled at him in the aftermath -- is to get a magnifying window on heartbreak. Dennehy gives an honest, unself-conscious account of a man all too aware of the unexpected potholes in his life. Blunt brings hurricane-force outrage to Robert Hayes, another of the falsely convicted, and Farrow is an ethereal presence in the pivotal role of Sunny, an indomitable figure despite the desperation of her circumstances. The actress expertly conveys the naive optimism that carried her through her ordeal.
Larry Block, Tracie Thoms, Johanna Day and, especially, Jim Bracchitta turn in first-rate work in the various ancillary roles.
I have to acknowledge a personal connection to "The Exonerated." A decade ago, I wrote at great length for another newspaper about Sunny Jacobs, when she was still in prison in South Florida and her cause was being championed by a childhood friend, Los Angeles filmmaker Micki Dickoff. (The play obviously compresses her story, but it's faithful to a fault.) Sitting in the Warner, it struck me as strange that I should have first encountered her in a jailhouse cafeteria, had had virtually no contact since then and was now reviewing the story of her life in a theater. But no odder, certainly, than the extraordinary path that her life has taken.
Jacobs was at the Warner on Tuesday night, along with Cook, and their appearances onstage at the end of the performance lent the proceedings another degree of authenticity and significance. The applause overwhelmed Jacobs, and she burst into tears. Was the reception so boisterous because the crowd wanted to embrace the evening's message, or to embrace her? It's a testament to the sophisticated handling of "The Exonerated" that the answer is probably both.
The Exonerated, by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Directed by Bob Balaban. Sets and lighting, Tom Ontiveros; costume coordinator, Sara J. Tosetti; original music, David Robbins. With Johanna Day and Tracie Thoms. Approximately 90 minutes. Through Sunday at Warner Theatre, 13th and E streets NW. Call 202-432-SEAT.