Closing their 98th season with quite the theatrical bang, Vagabond Players bring an emotionally gripping and inspiring docudrama to the stage with their production of The Exonerated. Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen and Directed by Josh Shoemaker, this evocative theatrical experience intertwines the true stories of six death row inmates who face execution for crimes they did not commit; ultimately receiving their freedom before execution. It’s a truly captivating work. Awe-striking, motivational moments are found in every moment of this thrilling yet harrowing tale.
Scenic Designer Maurice “Moe” Conn brings the minimalist approach to this production, allowing the audience to focus on the stories that are being told. Rather than having a row of ten chairs where each member of the ensemble is present upon the stage in a straight line at all times, Conn conceptualizes the experience to work more like a dateline special. With Lighting Designer Bob Dover drawing the three angled benches in the foreground in and out of tight spotlights every time one of the prisoners moves there to speak, it creates a slightly more enhanced theatrical experience; opening up their stories with a presentational vulnerability that puts their truths in the spotlight.
Director Josh Shoemaker keeps the ensemble ever present on the stage. When the actors who are playing the convicts and their loved ones are not having their moment to tell their tale, they are seated in a row of darkened chairs tucked in the background so that they are always listening; sharing the experience of what has happened to others like them. Shoemaker pushes the pacing of the story so that it feels like it unfolds in real time as well as a timeless reality that feels surreal. There is never a moment where the stories drag or falter; always constant emotional movement.
The ensemble members who take on multiple roles are motivators of the action in the production. While the female ensemble members— Christen N. Cromwell and Annette Mooney Wasno— tend to play more supportive character, doting wives to support their convicted husbands and share in their experiences, it is the male ensemble members— Tim Evans and Justin Johnson— who become the cynical, corrupt members of society— law enforcement, judges, lawyers— that push the disgusting truth of the flawed American justice system to light.
Evans and Johnson take turns playing a plethora of horrific if not down-right villainous characters. With corruption flowing through their portrayals it is the southern accents that you notice first; Evans’ being particularly strong whenever he turns into a menacing cop that questions the accused. It’s a marveling wonder that these two men can effortlessly switch between over a dozen characters, each one vile in their own nature, and distinctly different from the ones that came before and the ones that come after.
The six main performers who make their cases as the title would indicate are a half dozen stellar actors with raw, passionate talent going into each of their characters. The way each of these actors takes on the persona of an exonerated is breathtaking to behold; a true performing force that shakes the audience to its emotional core. These stories become their truths, their reality; the audience is captivated by their retelling and hangs on their every word as the experiences of life on death row, and the ability or in some cases inability to cope once released are revealed.
Appearing as a narrating force, Delbert (Doug W. Goldman) is a calming presence that has an easy-going approach to his existence. There are moments when Goldman’s character loses his cool and when he does it is frightening; a reality of startling emotions surging through his otherwise assuaging voice that generally calms the scene around him. There is a love radiating inside of his character; a love of life that is not so easily quashed even after his emotional outbursts; one that shines through all of the despair and darkness to bring his story to an optimistic conclusion. His final monologue and address to the audience of what’s wrong with the world is ferocious and gripping, really making you question the injustice of our country.
Sunny (Beverly Shannon) is the odd woman out as she is the only one of the six prisoners to be female. Shannon is an exceptional story teller. Each recollected moment as she narrates it becomes a vivid scene that happens before our eyes with nothing more than her voice to guide the imagery. Robert (Tyrone Requer) delivers a similar presence in his stories; calm and collected until he isn’t anymore. Requer’s letter to the judge over an incident of officer harassment is loaded with fury and frustration and delivered with equal parts of rage and flippancy. Though this pair of actors never appear in scene together, their stories share several defining characteristics; both performers making palpable and tangible the fear they experienced.
David (Don K. Murray) has a story like the rest but struggles the most upon receiving his freedom. Murray portrays the character in a low-state of energy, reserving his more exuberant moments for his shows of faith out in the basketball court during the rainy scenes. It is his harrowing monologue toward the end of the production that grips your heart like an iron fist; the fact that for some people the healing is never able to begin and some people are never able to cope.
The two most striking portrayals in the performance are given by David Shoemaker as Gary and Don Kammann as Kerry. Emotionally riveting, their tales strike nerves deep below the skin and make you truly feel the pain, grief, sorrow, anger, frustration; every negative feeling that weaves its path along their stories is felt radiating from these two actors as they tell their tales. Shoemaker’s accent is the most noticeable; a northwestern blend of something slightly migratory from Canada that makes his character stand out just a bit more. The ephemeral calm that fades in and out of his speech patterns gives his story a glimmer of hope even when all seems lost; a truly haunting retelling that moves the audience greatly.
Kammann’s portrayal of Kerry is the epitome of emotional honesty. Raw, vulnerable and truly mesmerizing, Kammann makes Kerry a reality for those of us watching. His tear-jerking confessions about the guilt he carries over his older brother are chilling. The way he slowly elaborates upon his horrific experiences from inside of jail make your blood run cold. A fascinating presence on the stage, Kammann is an exceptional addition to this stupendous cast.
The Vagabond Players’ The Exonerated is an emotional journey – one that will truly make you think and realize that ideas of justice are not always as concrete as we’d like them to be. Consider how many other stories have gone untold because they were not exonerated before their executions! Here’s a stunning production that will force you to look at life from a different angle.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission.