Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

The Exonerated
Florida Studio Theatre
Review by William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Bo-Nita


Katherine Michelle Tanner and Jeffrey Plunkett
Photo by Matthew Holler
The Stage III series at Florida Studio Theatre proved to be so popular (also brilliant artistically) that a fourth production was added when the Keating Theatre became available. This theater had mounted The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen in 2005, but the powers that be thought it might be time to revisit the incredibly powerful non-fiction theater piece. Announced originally for a one week run, it was extended before it even opened.

The Exonerated tells the stories of six diverse, real life people (five men, three black and two white, one female) who were on death row in various states and were exonerated and released. These are powerful stories, frightening when you realize one wrongfully convicted person is far too many. The stories feature various forms of prosecutorial misconduct, questionable interrogation techniques by law enforcement, and other examples of the system going utterly haywire. The only thing that is missing for me is some balance, a reminder that 98% of people convicted of major crimes continually deny responsibility for said actions.

The Exonerated was conceived to be presented on book, with actors holding scripts. This does not preclude a stage full of vivid performances from a cast of Florida Studio Theatre favorites. Lawrence Evans as Delbert acts as a sort of narrator, warmly engaging the audience. Delbert's story of incarceration is left in the background a bit, not fleshed out as much as the others. Warren Jackson plays Robert, a jockey convicted of killing a white woman who hung around the race track in search of black men. When his conviction was finally overturned he could get a permit to own a gun but not his license to be a jockey. Mr. Jackson's is a fine performance, especially after Robert's release when he reveals his character's emotional ups and downs. Kenajuan Bentley as David acts the story of a man convicted mostly because of racism. Susan Greenhill as Sunny, the only woman on death row, creates a vivid character, hippy-earth mother. Her husband is also convicted, both convictions stemming from coerced testimony of a career criminal they fell in with due to poverty and he is killed in a badly botched execution.

David Sitler plays Gary, son of rural farmers and convicted of his parents' murder. He is perhaps a little too intense in this role but still effective. Jeffrey Plunkett plays Kerry, who as a kid gets on the wrong side of the law with some mischief that perhaps transcends what the law and society want to tolerate. He is a naive kid who falls in briefly with an older woman who is murdered. All evidence should point to her married professor lover, but law enforcement targets the kid, due to their frustrations with him. The police label him as gay, and this follows him to prison where he is brutally assaulted. Mr. Plunkett makes us feel the "is he or isn't he?" of this man-child's prison life.

In alphabetical order, Kevin Cristaldi, Robert D. Mowry,. Karen Stephens, and Katherine Michelle Tanner all play multiple roles effectively. The men are labeled ensemble because of the large number of roles they jump in and out of, the women are listed with the roles they play.

Kate Alexander does her usual excellent job of keeping sharp focus and drawing great performances from her actors. Bruce Prices's scenic design is 11 chairs arranged in a semi-circle, minimal and effective. Susan Angermann's costumes help define all the characters, especially the main characters. Lighting designer Sarah McGrath does an effective job and sound designer Jon Baker makes everything clearly heard and his sound effects are effective, especially rain. It is wonderful to report that Marian Wallace, for years a major presence at Asolo Rep and later other theaters in the area, is back on duty as stage manager. Old stage managers apparently never completely leave us, thankfully, they return after pretending to retire.

Florida Studio has had a great success with their Stage 3 series, I covered two of the three previous productions, Stalking the Bogeyman and Gideon's Knot, both excellent. The Exonerated completes the season in fine style, a harrowing script excellently acted.

Florida Studio Theatre presents The Exonerated through April 29, 2017, at the Keating Theater 1241 N. Palm Avenue, Sarasota. For tickets and performance information, please call the box office at 941-366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.

Cast (in alphabetical order):
David: Kenajuan Bentley*
Ensemble: Kevin Cristaldi*
Delbert: Lawrence Evans*
Sunny: Susan Greenhill*
Robert: Warren Jackson*
Ensemble: Robert D. Mowry
Kerry: Jeffrey Plunkett*
Gary: David Sitler*
Georgia, Judge, Darla, State Prosecutor: Karen Stephens*
Sue, Sandra: Katherine Michelle Tanner*
*=Member of Actors' Equity Association

Directed by Kate Alexander
Scenic Designer: Bruce Price
Costume Designer: Susan Angermann
Lighting Designer: Sarah McGrath (under the direction of Bruce Price)
Sound Designer: Jon Baker (under the direction of Thom Korp)
Stage Manager: Marian Wallace*


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