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Theater Review: "The Exonerated"

Escape from Death Row

South Puget Sound Community College presents The Exonerated. Photo credit: Ikaika Ortiz

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I spent my formative years in an Oklahoma college town, Ada. With 16,000 residents and a median household income of less than $23,000 a year, it might not seem like the kind of place that'd have two books written about it. Robert Mayer's The Dreams of Ada and John Grisham's The Innocent Man cover two different Ada murder cases, each with the same chilling twist. The wrong guys were arrested, coerced into confessing, incarcerated, and falsely imprisoned for years - same small town, same prosecutor, same jailhouse informant - two different times. They shared a Death Row with Tulsan Greg Wilhoit, who spent five years for not murdering his wife. My dad was a correctional officer at "Big Mac," Oklahoma's state prison, so he knew them all (and assumed they were guilty).

Since 1992, the Innocence Project alone has used DNA evidence to exonerate 18 people who were scheduled for state execution and almost 300 other people accused of non-capital crimes. Does that complicate our view of capital punishment? It should.

In 2001, wife-and-husband team Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen conducted interviews with more than 40 exonerated Death Row residents, then condensed some of those interviews into a direct-address theater piece, The Exonerated. Their play won numerous awards and was adapted into a star-studded telefilm that aired, appropriately enough, on Court TV. Now director Don Welch has assembled an impressive cast of a dozen undergrads plus one soulful saxophonist (Sean Lindemeier) for a passionate, provocative, poetic 90 minutes of despair and redemption. It's terrific.

Among the standouts in a dedicated ensemble are Tre Gambrell as Delbert Tibbs, who channels righteous indignation into verse; Ikaika Ortiz as Gary Gauger, a mild-mannered fellow who didn't slash his own parents' throats; and Ashley Wagaman as Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs, who was exonerated of the charge of murdering a Canadian constable and Floridian state trooper - though not before her common-law husband, Jesse Tafero, was executed incorrectly (and incompetently) for the same false accusation. I was impressed by the radio-ready voice of Terrance Horne-Davis (as David Keaton) and the pathos embodied by Andy Brown as Kerry Cook - but again, there's not a weak link to be found here. I could've lived without the show's battery of sound effects, but more from some clunk in the execution than as an artistic choice. The set design, by Matts Kline and Simons, is simple but effective, with a large American flag suspended over the scene to remind us we bear a responsibility for what happens to the falsely accused.

In a way, the guys in those books about Ada were lucky. Yes, lucky, because Oklahoma's one of the 23 states that compensates the exonerated. Washington isn't, so the cast and crew of The Exonerated are collecting donations for a 401c3 fund to that effect. Please give generously.

THE EXONERATED, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through June 1, South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Rd. SW, Olympia, $10-$12 (free with SPSCC ID), 360.753.8586

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