The Exonerated was gripping, graphic, heart-wrenching, poetic and dangerous as several former death row inmates ruminate on the fragility of life and the chaos of fate. The packed house included overflow viewers watching via live feed. Produced by Butler University and Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre, this simple staged reading presented complex and fully fleshed relationships, where the slightest nod of the head or lift of the face cues us in. The versatile ensemble of professional actors carried our attention with their razor sharp focus. Director William Fisher created an empathetic atmosphere for each inmate's story, where the facts are justice is an illusion and the state is the enemy. Yet, Fisher is careful not to answer the questions raised in the production, instead he leaves space for the audience to choose between belief or doubt. This evening was a true event in theater: unique and impermanent, just like life. Nuvo Newsweekly
Under the right direction, play readings—with actors reading from scripts—can be just as powerful, memorable and theatrically magical as full productions. That’s been proven time and again on my visits to L.A. Theatre Works (most recently for “Lobby Hero” with Tate Donovan). And it was proven closer to home with the Aug. 29 reading of “The Exonerated,” Jessica Blank’s and Erik Jensen’s play that examines the alleged crimes and redemptive aftermath of six cases where death-row inmates were released after new evidence came to light.
Rather than a fully staged production, Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre, in conjunction with Butler University Theatre, simply parked 10 of Indy’s top actors on stools in front of music stands (after just one rehearsal, per union rules) and allowed them to tell these stories.
And it worked, hauntingly, with crowds watching not just from Butler’s Studio Theatre but also in other rooms via closed-circuit TV.
Granted, the material itself is inherently compelling. The play immerses us in the true stories of Delbert Tibbs (David Alan Anderson), a prison poet not even in the same state where the murder he was accused of occurred, and Gary Gauger (Michael Shelton), a mild man accused of slaughtering his parents. We learn of Sunny Jacobs (Diane Timmerman), a self-proclaimed hippie who allowed her romance with her husband to blossom while both were in different cells on death row after being found guilty in a police killing. We share the story of Robert Earl Hayes (Ben Rose), an African-American horse groomer accused of killing a white woman he had had relations with (even though she was found with Caucasian hair in her grip). And that of David Keaton, a would-be minister (Monte Tappler) coerced into confessing to a murder he didn’t commit. Then there’s Kerry Max Cook (Ryan Artzburger), brutalized in prison after being found guilty of rape and murder.
Yes, it’s somber stuff. But, counterintuitively, the material works when the characters come across as living, breathing, flawed, unique people, not as noble martyrs. And that’s the gift that the entire cast of Indy all-stars—including supporting cast members Milicent Wright, Jen Johansen, Matthew Roland and Doug Johnson—gave to “The Exonerated.” Even in “off camera” moments, the actors were engaged, touching and true.
I’ve hinted for a long time of the potential benefits to the Indy cultural scene of a regular series of such readings. Not only do audiences get to gain from the opportunity to experience work they otherwise might not get a chance to see and hear (at least, not with such a top-notch company), but the actors themselves gain by being able to work with one another and to explore a wider range of roles without needing to commit to lengthy runs. They also get a chance to be seen by theater lovers who might not have the means to attend theater as often as they would like.
We’ve got a talented pool of performers here, and “The Exonerated” showed off what they can do when their forces are combined. Here’s hoping for more such readings in the future. Indiana Business Journal