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The View from Death Row: A Review of Falcon Theatre’s Production of “The Exonerated”

Review by Alan Jozwiak of The Exonerated: Falcon Theatre

This is not the place for thought that does not end in concreteness;

It is not easy to be open or too curious.

It is dangerous to dwell too much on things:

To wonder who or why or when, to wonder how, is dangerous.

This warning, issued by Death Row inmate Delbert Tibbs at the start of the play The Exonerated, sums up the experience of diving into this play where the audience learns about the real-life tragic experiences of six innocent people who, through circumstances beyond their control, ended up being convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

The stories presented in The Exonerated were culled from interviews that the playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jiensen conducted from actual people who were exonerated of their crimes while on Death Row. These stories make for a compelling evening of theatre put on by Falcon Theatre.

We get to hear the tales of six people—Delbert (Darryl Hilton), Sunny (Dee Anne Bryll), Robert (Keith Alan Holland, Jr.), Gary (Brian Griffin), Kerry (Phineas Clark), and David (James Troup). Each story is different and unique, but share the common theme on how easily an unsuspecting citizen can be accused of a crime.

These six actors were faithful stewards of the stories that they were entrusted to tell. All six of the principles gave strong performances that powerfully presenting their stories. Each actors had moments where they could shine, like in the police interrogations of both Gary (Griffin) and Sunny (Bryll), the shocking confessions of prison life by Robert (Holland) and its toll on family members by Kerry (Phineas Clark), and the aftermath of life in prison by Delbert (Hilton) and David (Troup).

The spiritual weight of the show rests on the character of Delbert and Darryl. Hilton captures Delbert’s wisdom, his warmth, and worn-down belief in things like fairness and justice. Hilton nicely balances these traits without sounding forced or fake; he channels the old soul nature of Delbert in ways that substantially support the performances of his fellow actors.

The emotional weight of the show rests on Sunny, and Dee Anne Bryll gives us a study of a women struggling to save herself, her husband, and her children in the wake of impossible circumstances. Bryll’s story has some surprising emotional shockers which she delivers with authenticity and power. I won’t divulge them here, except to comment that several audience members gasped when they were revealed.

Director Paul Morris does a masterly job at allowing the stories to take precedent and having the actors sitting in chairs telling their tale. Taking a cue from the original off-Broadway production, the actors are seated in chairs as they tell their story. Only Delbert’s character is allowed to roam the stage as he philosophizes about life and incarceration.

By removing distractions of setting, props, and costumes, the audience is able to concentrate all the more on the stories being presented. It was a wise choice which added to the power of the show.

Working in conjunction with the Ohio Innocence Project, Falcon also hosted several exonerated people for a talkback after select performances of the play. I was privileged to hear the story of Clarence Elkins, who was exonerated of killing his mother-in-law and niece. He is living proof of what happens when justice runs afoul. On February 8, Falcon will host Patrick Welage, who is Professor Emeritus of Theology, Philosophy, and Theatre Arts to discuss the moral issues raised within the play.

This is a rare opportunity to see this play performed with a talented cast. Do not miss it. The Exonerated runs one more week, with performances February 7 – 9 at 636 Monmouth Street in Historic Newport, Kentucky. For more information, please go to the Falcon website at: http://falcontheater.net/current-season/exonerated/.