The subject matter is absorbing, the individual stories undeniably compelling and the interlocutor-actors who deliver them earnestly committed, but strangely I found the Chicago regional premiere of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s “The Exonerated” curiously unmoving. Featuring ten actors relating the true-life stories of six ordinary Americans who—due to racism, corruption or just plain bad luck—spent a good chunk of their lives on death row before being proved innocent and released, “The Exonerated,” constructed from transcripts, testimonies and the actual words of its victims, has been labeled everything from docudrama to verbatim theater. And while it’s easy to admire the play’s intellectual achievements—a polemic against both capital punishment and the failure of the American criminal justice system—it’s more difficult for this staging to unearth the real heart of the piece: the quiet yet powerful resolve that comes from letting go of bitter resentment. This is evident in the text’s most compelling story, that of Sunny Jacobs (sensitively read by actress JoAnn Montemurro) who, along with her husband, was wrongfully imprisoned for seventeen years but subsequently lost him to a brutal execution that, due to a malfunctioning electric chair, took thirteen-and-a-half minutes to kill him until flames were coming out of his head and smoke was emanating from his ears. Nonetheless, Sunny considers the state of her current life—a “living memorial” preaching a message of love and resilience—the best revenge of all. Director Greg Kolack’s busy yet cinematic staging (split focus, cross cutting, shifting spotlights) helps keep the interweaving narrative threads clear and the dialogue as a whole from becoming amorphous, but the piece is weighed down with ten times more acting than it needs (histrionics and hysterics dictate most of the dramatizations) and a more matter-of-fact and unsentimental approach could have driven home Sunny’s message and emphasized that quiet triumph of the human spirit over the anger. Trust the text and tell the story. Only then can “The Exonerated” transcend its state of living journalism into palpable moving drama. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, (773)338-2177. Fri-Sat 8:30pm/Sun 3:30pm. $10-$15. Through Oct 15.