THE EXONERATED: Intense, Moving Fare at Ritz Theatre Co.

by Walter Bender

The Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ opened its 2010 Summer Artist Festival with THE EXONERATED, a play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.  

(Clockwise from top) Theresa Dolan, Robert Hargraves, Ray Mamrack, Kara Shelton, Roderick Slocum, Frantz Excellent, Mike Hagan, Denise Brunker, Andy Kushner, Damian Wallace: The Cast of THE EXONERATED at The Ritz Theatre Co. (Photo by Mark D. Thellmann)

THE EXONERATED tells the story of 6 men and women who were convicted of crimes they did not commit and given the death sentence. After years of waiting, their convictions were overturned and they were released. As we were told prior to the performance, “The words are real, the stories are real.” The ensemble cast of 10 tells these stories.

The setting for THE EXONERATED is a small thrust black box style staging on the Ritz mainstage. The only set pieces are chairs for the actors. There are no major special effects, lighting effects or anything else to detract from the story…and that is how it should be with this production. The stories, the words are the stars of this show and director Esther Flaster gives the words the opportunity to shine. And shine they do!

The entire cast of this production was spot-on. Ms. Flaster has assembled a collection of amazing actors who allow the words to tell the tale without “acting”. Franz T. Excellent, as Delber Tibbs, was of particular note. His initial job was to be the narrator of the performance, and did so with the defiant dignity of a Chicago Slam poet. As he moved into the character telling his story, his eloquence and charisma were tremendous. I hung on his every word.

Theresa Dolan (Sunny Jacobs) allowed the fear of the moment to live in her as she told the story of what happened to her character. As she expressed her dedication to live as a tribute to her (also falsely convicted and executed) husband, I felt the sorrow of her loss, yet the pride in her determination to honor him. Michael Hagan (Kerry Cook) told what I found to be the most horrifying story, yet showed the courage and dignity that his character felt in spite of the terrors he experienced. Robert Hargraves (Gary Gauger) kept the Midwest folksiness in his character despite the personal tragedy his character experienced. Robert Slocum (Robert Earl Hayes) and Damein Wallace (David Keaton) told similar stories in very different ways, both literally moving me to tears. Denise Brunker, Andy Kushner, Ray Mamrak and Kara K. Shelton provided varied roles, helping to tell each of the stories. They alternately added necessary humor and tension.

Lighting and sound effects were kept to a minimum, yet even those few effects were too much. The sound was out of sync with the actors’ performances, and even though I know they were intended to shock and unnerve the audience I thought they were unnecessary. And at times the actors were out of their lights, which was a bit distracting. But these are minor issues with what was an otherwise very moving performance.

Congratulations to the Ritz Theatre Company, the cast, crew, and staff for creating a very special production.

by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen
Directed by Esther Flaster
June 10 – 20, 2010
The Ritz Theatre Co.
915 White Horse Pike
Haddon Township, NJ 08107

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