THEATER REVIEW: “The Exonerated” @ Beck Center by Laura Kennelly

Through Sun 11/7

The Exonerated, now playing at the Beck, offers an unexpectedly compelling look at the death penalty.

Why “unexpectedly?” Because director Colleen Longshaw skillfully avoids yelling at or lecturing to the audience. Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the docudrama presents true accounts of a half dozen wrongfully convicted individuals on death row. Listening to one speaker and then to the next, we learn about their lives, the crime they were convicted of, and the legal decisions that put them on death row. Given that execution cannot be undone and that eventually they were found innocent, their stories make a strong case for abolishing the death penalty.

Convincing portrayals of the six on death row were given by Stuart Hoffman (Kerry), Amy Fritsche (Sunny), Greg White (Delbert), Isaiah Betts (Robert), Remell Bowens (David), and Abraham Adams (Gary). Members of the ensemble also included Andrea Belser, Samantha Cocco, Keith Kornajcik and John Polk in supporting roles.

For this play, the tiny Studio Theater provided the perfect venue for the actors to talk “personally” to the audience. Each actor, as the spotlight found them, began to speak about their experiences. With the actors arrayed around the stage — some perched on stools, others in chairs, and even one on the floor — it was easier to follow each character as their accounts moved from one to the other and then back again. We heard interspersed snippets of their lives before the killings they were convicted of, their trials and their eventual release.

The lights turned out to be both an asset and a problem. A few missed cues (it was opening night) caused brief slips when speakers couldn’t be seen, but overall, the setup was worth it because it enabled us to remember who was who as the accounts moved from past to present. (To top it off, no fault of the Beck, there was even a several-minute blackout, caused by an electricity-busting thunderstorm passing through Lakewood.)

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t avoid this play because it’s about the death penalty. Thanks to actors who brought the accused to life and who make us care about the outcome, the drama is far from a cut and dried anti-death infomercial. For a quick peek, check out this video clip from the Beck production (pictures being worth more than my thousand words and all).

Beck Center offers post-show talkbacks/discussions in collaboration with The Ohio Innocence Project on Oct. 9, 15, 22, 29 and Nov. 7.

Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. For info and tickets go to beckcenter.org.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

 

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