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Spare Chair

Pisces Moon brilliantly takes an intimate look at the death penalty in ‘The Exonerated’

thesparechair1Capital punishment. Besides abortion, it’s one of the most controversial topics that send people into their fighting corners. It makes for a fascinating idea to interpret on stage, which is exactly what Pisces Moon theater company has done with its most recent play, “The Exonerated,” which opened last weekend at the Broadway Playhouse.

Director Susan Myer has this uncanny ability to do with a play what a great visual artist might do with their canvas. (This is not particularly surprising, being that Myer has a history in the fine arts.) She presents community theater plays unlike any I’ve ever seen. By now, audiences can expect to an enjoy a Myer production, and even learn a thing or two.

Reminiscent of “The Laramie Project,” which Myer directed several years ago, “The Exonerated” bears the trademarks of a Pisces Moon winner: an edgy script, finely tuned acting, an artistic but minimal backdrop and the skills of a director who continues to be strong in her game.

The play opens up with gospel music playing in the background. The cast walk single file down the short aisles of the Broadway Playhouse, each bringing a chair to sit down on. And then the story begins. It’s tragic, heavy and paralyzing. It will entertain you, perplex you and move you.

The story follows six people (five men, one woman) who were accused of murder, wrongfully convicted, and thus sentenced to Death Row for crimes they didn’t commit. It’s the type of story that we wish didn’t happen. It’s much more comfortable to remain naïve and imagine that these sorts of things never take place—that a man could sit in jail for 17 years before finally being released into society. That a woman and her husband were both on Death Row, or that a man was raped repeatedly in jail, and a slur was etched into his body, deeper than a tattoo. But they’re all true stories. And we, the audience, sorrowfully listen as each person sits in his or her chair on stage to share how it all went wrong.

There’s Gary (Roger McCune), the normal guy whose parents are killed on his property. Quickly, he’s arrested and convicted of the crime. Years later, as he’s facing the electric chair, the truth comes out and he’s set free. There’s Delbert (JJ Porter), a black man, who is thrown into the slammer and wrongfully convicted, simply because he’s black. We see how politics plays a role sometimes in who gets the chair and who doesn’t. We see the disturbing reality of how the race card gets played when someone needs a scapegoat. The most harrowing of all is that these stories are true and there’s no way to escape truth.

Of course, the best part of the play is the fact that all six of these “criminals” are finally exonerated. We see the myriad reactions as they each discover their freedom, and we see what jail has taken away from them—forever.

thesparechair2Myer has constructed a play that is simple in its storytelling, which is exactly what this type of tale needs. The material is heavy enough that it doesn’t need to be weighed down by glitzy costumes or special effects. The stories and the acting speak for themselves, and Myer has done a superb job at bringing the best out of each actor.

The entire cast deserves the applause it received when the play opened last weekend. From Aaron Walker’s role as Kerry who, in near tears, tells about how he was raped in jail, to Nathan Caracter’s acting range producing sadness and rage, to the multitude of characters and accents that Jeff Dinnell takes on (with aplomb) to Roger McCune’s naturalness on stage and on and on. Also rounding out the cast (and there’s not a weak link among them) is the strong Becky Armor, the funny Briana N. Michaud, the versatile Chad Davies, the vulnerable Michelle Shulman and the intimate Yahel Townsend.

This play takes a heavy look at wrongful convictions, the death penalty, forgiveness and faith. While Myer doesn’t tell anyone what to believe, or how to believe, she certainly makes you consider your stance on the death penalty.

On the heels of “The Exonerated,” later this year, Myer and her Pisces Moon team will begin pre-production on the play “Dead Man Walking,” written by Tim Robbins, an adaptation of the film and the original book, written by Sister Helen Prejean. The project will be massive as Pisces Moon collaborates with Delta Charter High School students and Cabrillo College, and presents the play in February, 2008. Trust me, you won’t be walking out of that play, or “The Exonerated.”

“The Exonerated” runs through Saturday, May 26. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, and 8 pm. on Thursday, May 24. Tickets are $12-$15 and can be purchased online at piscesmoon.org or by calling (877) 238-5596.
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