Authors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen developed The Exonerated by interviewing 40 people who had been wrongly convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death row but who were later freed thanks to DNA tests, new evidence or belated confessions. The husband-wife team has re-created six of these sagas for the stage, relying, as much as possible, on verbatim transcripts of conversations and court records. The accused here are all young and without much money at the time of their arrests; half are black. Five of them are sentenced in the South, one in Illinois: There‘s an earth mother, a freethinking ex-seminarian, an organic farmer, a bartender, a pious high school grad and a horse-racetrack worker.
Although Delbert Tibbs (Richard Lawson), arrested on a murder and rape charge while hitchhiking, appears throughout the play as a kind of host-narrator, it is the story of Sunny Jacobs (Adele Robbins) that forms The Exonerated’s moral center of gravity. Jacobs, a vegetarian hippie mom, and her common-law husband, Jesse (Jon Kellam), are being driven by a parolee (Kelly Cole) when, at a rest stop, the driver suddenly guns down two Florida state troopers. Within minutes, Sunny and Jesse are unwilling passengers in a car being pursued and shot at by other cops.
The couple will spend years apart on death row with terrible consequences — the cruelest twist being that prosecutors ignored the real killer‘s confession. Other tragic ironies abound: Even though his murder-rape conviction is overturned, David Keaton (Ben Cain) is denied a license to return to his work with racetrack horses by the state of Mississippi — because he is a convicted felon. Gary Gauger (Brian Powell) is tricked into hypothesizing how he might have killed his mother and father — speculations that are presented at his trial as a confession. And Kerry Max Cook’s (Ken Palmer) conviction drives his brother to ruin. It isn‘t long into the evening that its oppressive climate of injustice is replaced by a realization of how, for such a wealthy, powerful and all-but-invincible country, America treats many of its citizens with whimsical vindictiveness.
The Exonerated falls into the relatively new stage category of docutheater that includes Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, Mark Wolf‘s Another American: Asking and Telling and the Tectonic Theater Company’s The Laramie Project. Such works tend to rise or fall on the strength of their performers or directors, because the texts are virtually critic-proof — not only are they based on fact, but they are the result of exhaustive research that includes hundreds of hours of interviews. As long as these works remain about their subjects, they almost can‘t fail, unless, as with The Laramie Project, they also become a mirror of conscience for their self-absorbed narrators.
Blank and Jensen’s 90-minute piece, which they direct (Bob Balaban is credited as “supervising director”), mostly succeeds both as an indictment against the criminal-justice system and as a document of human endurance, although its opening canned guitar score and the appearance of Tibbs as a poetic narrator make us cringe. Another problem is that not only are all the characters unerringly likable, we sense that they — or the actors impersonating them — want to be liked. This weakens the evening, because it feeds into the other end of that equation, namely, that audience members subconsciously want stage characters (at least those who are convicted of murder) to be as nice, reasonable and charming as themselves. It wouldn‘t hurt this show if one or two of the characters were not so likable, not so reasonable or charming, but were ornery enough to make us squirm a little.
Although Mikhail Bulgakov will forever be known for his novel The Master and Margarita, he first became a literary sensation as a playwright during that very brief golden age of Russian revolutionary art that flourished in the first half of the 1920s. By the time Flight was ready to premiere in 1926, however, the Stalinist frost was already settling on Soviet culture, and the play was never performed during Bulgakov’s lifetime. Its story begins in an Orthodox monastery, where a disparate group of people are holed up awaiting the final turn of battle tide between the Red Army and White Cossacks.
Besides the clergymen and a collection of White Army officers, there is Serafima (Arizona Brooks), the beautiful but typhoid-stricken wife of a government official, and Sergei (Joe Zanetti), an academic who has platonically attached himself to this delirious woman. Bulgakov creates a warring family of characters who are both frightening and sweet, a range that combines in the person of Roman Kludhov (Will Kepper), a White general who, in the closing days of the war, has resorted to hanging anyone who displeases him. In a way, Kludhov is just as mad as Serafima is feverish; in fact, he and the war are so far gone that he has entered a dangerous state of Zen-like calm.
Act 2 shifts to a kind of buffoonery that makes it seem like another play, although Bulgakov craftily has it appear as a logical extension of Act 1. Everyone is now living in Turkish exile: Serafima, frail but recovered, is a permanent houseguest of a former White general, Grigory Charnota (Patrick Tuttle), and his mistress, Lyuska (Tisha Terrasini). Although Serafima does little around their apartment, Charnota is forced to sell dolls in a Constantinople market while Lyuska earns the rent by whoring herself out. Sergei, now a strolling accordion player, teams up with Charnota in a wild scheme to wheedle some money from Serafima‘s former husband, who lives comfortably in Paris.
Director Charles Otte has done a remarkable job presenting this U.S. premiere of Flight. His design team works wonders to help conjure not only a long-ago period but also a mood of utter despair that is transformed into airy comedy: Bill Eigenbrodt and Meghan Rogers’ set, dominated by revolving mirrored panels; Robert Conner‘s site-suggestive slide projections; Peter Carlstedt’s crisp sound design; Otte‘s own lighting plot; and, above all, Melanie Watnick’s detailed costumes. The problem with a production so reliant upon atmosphere and historical re-creation as Flight is that the acting has to be uniformly at peak level, which is not the case here. However, Kepper‘s turn as the ruthless yet generous Kludhov is so commanding that it almost covers for the ensemble’s unevenness. Kepper‘s nuanced performance makes this former tyrant’s death wish to return to revolutionary Russia a graceful elegy for a country awakening from one nightmare only to find itself in another.