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Roles to Die For 

Death Row survivors plead their stunning cases in The Exonerated.

Capital punishment has one big drawback: There are no do-overs, in case somebody turns out to be not guilty. Fortunately, that never happened in Texas, back when our president was warming the governor's seat. Even though he sent 152 Death Row convicts on to their great reward, George W.M.D. Bush has claimed that every single gol'durned one of them was flat-bust guilty, even in the face of powerful evidence to the contrary. But those files are closed now because, as they say, innocent corpses tell no tales.

But outside the friendly confines of Texas, some Death Row inmates are actually freed when unmatched DNA or belated confessions from real perps pop open the jail doors. And the stories these survivors tell can be riveting. A few of them are on display in The Exonerated, a play compiled from interviews with formerly doomed inmates by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Now at Dobama Theatre, this concert-style production interweaves the stories of six people who spent from 2 to 22 years on Death Row for murders they did not commit. In many ways, it's a stark and stunning piece of theater, but the multiple story lines never allow us to penetrate the surface to experience what such wrongful incarceration actually feels like.

The evening is hosted, so to speak, by Delbert Tibbs, an erudite African American who was convicted of killing a white man and raping a white woman, apparently just because he was traveling in the area at the time. Repeating the refrain "This ain't easy," Tibbs sets the stage and tells his story, which is intercut into the narratives of five other survivors. Among them is Robert Earl Hayes, an African American horse groomer who was arrested for the rape and murder of a white girl at the track, even though a clump of obviously Caucasian hair was still gripped in her lifeless fist. The jury agreed with the prosecutor that, incredibly, she had pulled out her own hair during the attack.

This is just one of the judicial-system outrages that are revealed. In another case, a young and well-bred man named Kerry Max Cook spent more than two decades on Death Row because one of his fingerprints was found in the apartment where a girl he had been seeing was found murdered. It was claimed at his trial that that fingerprint had been left at the time of the killing, even though there is no way to detect when a print was deposited. Indeed, each story is more compelling than the last, including the stupefying conviction of Sunny Jacobs and her husband Jesse for the murder of two police officers. Even though another man confessed to the crime, Jesse was electrocuted in the infamous episode where, due to a malfunction, officials had to throw the switch on Old Sparky three times before innocent Jesse, smoke pouring from his ears, finally succumbed after a half-hour of torture.

This isn't pretty stuff, and the Dobama cast, under the perceptive direction of Joel Hammer, turns in some remarkable performances. As Tibbs, Darryl Lewis has a powerful stage presence and a voice that sounds as if it's emanating from an aged oak barrel. Elizabeth Townsend is gently devastated yet still hopeful as Sunny, and her brief love-letter scene with her husband (tellingly played by Jeff Grover) is pure and touching. But perhaps the most affecting performance is turned in by Allan Byrne as the vulnerable Cook. An innocent young fellow who enjoyed dazzling the ladies with his Gap clothes in the 1970s, he relates, as his eyes swim with incomprehension, how he was raped in prison, after which the words "good pussy" were carved into his butt with a shiv.

Also excellent are Kirk Brown as a mild-mannered organic farmer who learned embroidery in the slammer, Jimmy Woody as the still-simmering Hayes, and David Lemoyne as a man struggling to keep his spiritual moorings. Smaller ensemble roles are handled well by Marnie Task, Sonia N. Bishop, and Grover. Assigned a handful of minor characters, beefy Nate Cockerill tends to play single-note emotions and doesn't match the nuance of his castmates.

Director Hammer stages it all simply, with the actors sitting on metal folding chairs facing front and relating their histories with little embellishment. While the script does an admirable job of tracing each survivor's tragic journey through legal hell, we never truly experience what it feels like to be totally innocent, behind bars, awaiting death. This shortcoming, plus the absence of broader context for each of the main stories, mutes the overall impact of the work.

Observing these perversions of justice, we understand why the governor of Illinois suspended all executions in that state. If a government doesn't take enormous care with and full responsibility for the deaths it commits, it's no better than a sociopath. And that's truly scary.

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