Friday, September 10, 2004

'Exonerated' lacks punch

Ensemble opener gives suburban
spin to death penalty rant

By Jackie Demaline
Enquirer staff writer

Ensemble Theatre's season opener, The Exonerated, has a bad case of preaching to the converted. Its subjects are the death penalty and the sickening injustices in our criminal justice system. It tells the stories of six former death row inmates - in their own words.

Oh, that a sense of social justice would be enough. But for the stage, there also needs to be a powerful sense of theater.

There's no question that false conviction and ineptitude or malevolence in our justice system make for great drama, particularly when it stays close to real lives.

But between the sympathetic playwrights' tendency to erase any flaws these falsely accused might have and director D. Lynn Meyers' flattening too many of the stories into a nice, clean middle-class mold, The Exonerated loses some of the punch it should have in 90 intermissionless minutes.

The cast of 10 is onstage when the audience arrives, each settled into a chair in a small space that could be a mini-interrogation room.

Their body language is wonderful, portraying boredom and defeat.

They tell their stories: Delbert (William Jay Marshall) is a poet and philosopher who happened to be the wrong color when there was a murder in the neighborhood. Sunny (Tracy Shayne) found herself in the middle of a cop killing.

The local D.A. had a grudge against Kerry (A. Jackson Ford). But Ford isn't convincing as a pretty, small-town bad boy, and it's beyond belief that a man with the educated air embedded in him by Jim Nelson could be railroaded into offering a vision of how he might have killed his parents.

Too many of them seem so inappropriately suburban.

The cops and prosecutors, mostly played by Greg Procaccino and Michael Bath, are pretty much prime-time stereotypes.

Some of the actors, Marshall in particular, are very good at getting inside the skin of their characters - and that's what The Exonerated needs: for all the performers to be digging deeper rather than being satisfied with doing a reasonable job on the surface.

It's their job to let the audience understand these people inside their stories, to feel their pain and loss, to know their humanity and then meet it with our own.

The Exonerated, through Sept. 26, Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 421-3555.

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