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Theater review: 'The Exonerated'

With true stories of the wrongly convicted, FST explores the ugly truth of our justice system.


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  • | 10:00 a.m. April 25, 2017
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If you hate injustice, FST’s latest Stage III production will make your blood boil. False imprisonment based on false testimony will do that to you. We grind our teeth at the undeserved sufferings of Josef K, Andy Dufresne and Edmond Dantès. But those are fictional characters. And the protagonists of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s “The Exonerated” are real.

Their play tells the stories of these six wrongly convicted and ultimately acquitted death row inmates:

Lawrence Evans
Lawrence Evans

Sunny (Susan Greenhill) a white flower child who took a ride from the wrong individual. The man killed two police officers, and then took Sunny hostage, along with her husband and kids. A roadblock and a hail of bullets stopped his wild ride. But the cop-killer knew the system—and put the blame on Sunny and her husband in plea-bargaining. She stayed in jail for 16 years, facing a death sentence. Her husband died in agony on a malfunctioning electric chair.

Kerry (Jeffrey Plunkett) a young white bartender. He took the fall for the rape, murder and mutilation of a young secretary. An obsessively jealous professor actually killed her. Evidence and witnesses pointed to him. But the police had Kerry pegged as a kill-crazy sex pervert. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they liked their story better—and stuck to it. Which made Kerry the target of sickening abuse in his 22-year stretch on death row.

Delbert (Lawrence Evans) an African-American poet who hitchhiked across America in the ’70s. He met friendly faces—until the police picked him up in Florida. Thanks to a lying jailhouse informant, he was convicted for a murder committed 220 miles away from where he’d been. He spent three years in prison.

Gary (David Sitler) a young white man who awoke to the horrific sight of his murdered parents—and was tricked into making a confession after a grueling, 12-hour police interrogation. He spent nearly three years on death row.

Robert (Warren Jackson) a black horse trainer from Mississippi. He talked to white women, even dated a few. A white woman was raped and killed. Robert talked to her … once. That was enough to send him to death row for six years.

Susan Greenhill
Susan Greenhill

David (Kenajuan Bentley), a man of faith who happened to black. He walked by a convenience store one day. Earlier that day, another black man killed a cop inside. As a result, David faced the electric chair for eight years. And nearly lost his faith.

Kate Alexander’s direction has the clarity of a catechism. The unvarnished truth is enough. That’s exactly what she gives us.

The tales of these six exonerated Americans unfold with stark simplicity. The actors sit in two rows of chairs, read from notebooks and deliver performances from the heart. Bentley, Evans, Greenhill, Jackson, Plunkett and Sitler melt into their characters and break your heart. Karen Stephens and Katherine Michelle Tanner portray two tenaciously loyal wives and other female characters. Kevin Cristaldi and Robert D. Mowry stand in for various unsympathetic cops, judges, psycho-killers and rats. The sizzling electric chair is played by a silhouette behind a scrim.

Warren Jackson
Warren Jackson

The play’s conclusion? Jailing innocent people is bad; killing them is worse. For every innocent person on death row, somebody got away with murder. We have to do better.

That all seems dead obvious. So obvious, you’d think that it needn’t be said. The fates of these six exonerated people prove otherwise.

Kudos to the playwrights and the talents of FST for telling the ugly truth.

 

IF YOU GO

“The Exonerated” runs through April 29, at Florida Studio Theatre’s Keating Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota; 366-9000; floridastudiotheatre.org.