The Exonerated Leaves a Lasting Impact

theatre1Summer often ends up being the time when frivolous theater rears its ugly head. Not to sound snobbish, but lately, it seems like finding anything meatier than No, No Nanette would be a challenge. That’s why it’s so refreshing to have 2nd Story Theatre presenting a gripping piece of theater that’s sure to leave an impact that’ll last through the fall.

The Exonerated, by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, is a docudrama about people who were put on death row for crimes they didn’t commit. The fact that the stories you hear throughout the course of the evening are all true is what gives the play its emotional punch. 2nd Story Theatre paired with Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket to bring this powerful play to life. Add to that the location – Bristol’s Historic Courthouse – and what you have is a real theatrical event. The setting gives the play the feeling of a town hall. All the characters are in street clothes, and they speak directly to the audience and to each other.

It’s safe to say this show offers the best acting you’ll see on a local stage right now. The cast is led by Mixed Magic’s Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, who commands the stage as one of play’s more philosophical characters. The existential insights he offers, combined with Pitts-Wiley’s formidable presence, create a sort of ringmaster for the evening, or perhaps “father figure” is the more appropriate term, even though the stories these people have to tell evoke the image of numerous three-ring circuses.

Tom Chace’s humble portrait of a man who is wrongly accused of murdering his parents is the first tale we hear about in depth. Chace does a fantastic job of portraying a man who keeps most of his thoughts and emotions to himself. The relaxed nature of his performance makes you examine him even after you know he’s innocent, turning the audience into the types of people who continued to harass his character even after he was vindicated. Joe Henderson’s performance is so visceral, it’s hard to imagine how he’s able to perform it multiple times a week. The same could be said for Amos Hamrick and Edward V. Crews, who conversely offer justifiable anger and solemnity with skill and dignity.

The most harrowing piece of this six-part puzzle is given to us by Joanne Fayan, the sole female death row inmate featured in the play. Her story begins with a double homicide and ends with her reflecting on the nature of forgiveness. Fayan is incredible in this role. She and the other actors have to be applauded for keeping the material grounded in reality. Director Ed Shea has taken a real risk by keeping the show aesthetically and tonally simple, but the risk pays off as you find yourself wondering how six people talking to you for an hour and a half could leave you feeling so shaken up.

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