The Exonerated—compelling stories of the wrongfully condemned

The Exonerated—compelling stories of the wrongfully condemned

By Edith McCauley, Theater Critic

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen interviewed 40 victims of a flawed justice system who had been condemned to death and subsequently found innocent. The result of their intensive research is The Exonerated. A cast of 10 actors seated on stools on a stark stage tell the stories of Kerry Max Cook, Gary Gauger, Robert Earl Hayes, Sunny Jacobs, David Keaton, and Delbert Tibbs. Many of the ensemble play multiple-roles, police officers, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, spouses and friends. Although Brian Dennehy (Gary Gauger) and Marlo Thomas (Sunny Jacobs) receive star billing, every actor seated on stage relates the details of their lives with emotional performances seldom experienced in theater.

Many call the death penalty justice. In the wider world, it is considered a human rights violation. The playwrights, cast, producers, and Bob Balaban, who directs, project their convictions. Too many sentenced to the death penalty in the United States are on Death Row because of wrongful convictions.

Dennehy tells the story of Gary Gauger, an organic farmer living in northern Illinois. Arrested for the murder of his parents, he was convinced by his interrogators to give an imaginary account of how he might have killed them. Based on this “confession,” he was sentenced to die in the electric chair. Appealing to Larry Marshall and a team of hard-working law students from Northwestern University, his appeal was taken to the Illinois Supreme Court. Two members of a motorcycle gang confessed to the crime, and Gary was released in 1999. Living on his farm with wife, Sue, played by Johanna Day, he became only one of those former Gov. George Ryan cited as the basis for his decision to commute sentences of those on Death Row.

Sunny Jacobs was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Florida with her common-law husband, Jesse, and their two children, in a car with Walter Rhodes, they were stopped by the police. Rhodes gunned down two officers and later testified that Sunny and Jesse were the shooters. Both were sentenced to die. Rhodes later recanted, but Jesse was executed, and Sunny served 15 years. One of the tenderest moments in the play is their exchange of letters and determination to survive.

The poet, Delbert Tibbs, an African-American, played by William J. Marshall, hitchhiking across America was picked up for the rape of a teen-ager and the murder of her boyfriend. A description by the girl put him at the scene of the crime in spite of the fact that he in no way resembled the attacker. Friends formed a Committee to Free Delbert Tibbs. Taken to the Supreme Court by the D.A., a ruling called for a re-trial. Weak evidence enabled Tibbs to gain his freedom. Living in Chicago, he continues to advocate againt the death penalty.

Robert Earl Hayes, played by Ed Blunt, David Keaton, played by Chad L. Coleman, and Kerry Max Cook, played by Bruce MacVittie, are African-American men who encountered the system in Florida, Texas, and Mississippi. Based on insubstantial evidence and racism, they all suffered physically and emotionally for years before they, too, were freed after DNA and links to the real perpetrators proved their innocence.

Many in the audience at the opening, so moved by the victims’ tales, wept openly. As they stood for an ovation, Marlo Thomas stepped forward to introduce Sunny Jacobs and Gary Gauger and his wife Sue. We sat enthralled as they told of their life-long commitment to enlighten the entire world to the injustices in the legal system, a system only as good as those who arrest, sentence and guard the incarcerated. Not in recent memory can I recall a performance that so involved an audience. Playing only through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago, this is a play that must be seen. Tickets are available by calling Broadway in Chicago (312) 902 1400 or at

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