Monday, October 07, 2002

New Play Looks at Folks Wrongly Invited To Dinner.

From the NYTimes (reg. req.)'The Exonerated': Convicted, Condemned and Innocent


COERCED confessions, conflicting DNA evidence and overturned convictions are the subjects of newspaper headlines. They are also elements of "The Exonerated," a play about six wrongfully convicted death row inmates, starring Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh and Sara Gilbert. Developed by two young actors from interviews with former prisoners, it opens on Thursday at 45 Bleecker Street under Bob Balaban's direction.

The play follows the characters from arrest through imprisonment to life after release, and the words the actors speak are from the exonerated themselves.

Mr. Dreyfuss plays Kerry Max Cook, a Texas man sentenced to death for the murder of a woman in his apartment complex. He spent 22 years in prison before DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Ms. Clayburgh appears as Sonya Jacobs, known as Sunny, who was convicted along with her common-law husband, Jessie Joseph Tafero, of murdering a Florida policeman and a Canadian constable in 1976. Ms. Jacobs was released 16 years later, after the real killer confessed.

In 1990, two years before Sunny's release, Jessie Tafero was electrocuted. The chair malfunctioned and flames shot from his head after three jolts of electricity.

The authors of "The Exonerated," Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, who are both in their 20's, say they decided to create the play during a conference on the death penalty.

The playwrights hope "The Exonerated" will provoke debate. But, Ms. Blank said, there is more to it than politics. "These stories have so much to teach us — not just about the legal system and the death penalty," she said, "but also about humanity, about strength, about how you learn to survive, about courage."