Not Guilty

HotCity Theatre debuts with a polemic -- and how!

The Exonerated

The ArtLoft, 1529 Washington Avenue

Call 314-482-9125.

Ten talented actors sit on an unadorned, multitiered stage and tell stories about six hapless people caught in the cogs of that juggernaut known as the American criminal-justice system. These six are among The Exonerated, presumably innocent victims who nevertheless were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death row, and whose convictions eventually were overturned. As the actors share these compelling stories, mostly they look straight ahead; they rarely move. In this breathless world, a raised arm is as theatrical as a crashing chandelier.

The Exonerated, which debuted off-Broadway last year, is the premiere offering from HotCity Theatre, a new troupe spawned by the recent merger of HotHouse Theatre and City Theatre. This inaugural production allows for an ideal fusion: The play contains the kind of topical material that would have attracted HotHouse and it's being staged at that company's ArtLoft home, yet it has been directed to seamless perfection by City Theatre's Ted Gregory. HotCity could not have hoped for a more auspicious kickoff.

Anyone who's ever doubted the talent pool of the St. Louis acting community should make a special point to attend the show, because -- while some roles are larger than others, and while some are more emotionally involving than others -- there is not a weak link on the stage. Steve Isom as a son found guilty of having murdered his parents, William Whitaker as a setup patsy in the murder of a party girl, Ron Himes as a prisoner who has the ear of God and can stop rain, Robert A. Mitchell as an inmate who finds a way to beat the system, Dennis Lebby as the cracker-barrel philosopher who seems to provide the evening's conscience ("This is a weird country, man") -- all five actors bring understated truth and poetic simplicity to their readings. As the aptly named Sunny, the sole female victim, Lavonne Byers wrings the text as effortlessly as she might a wet washrag. In sharing the story of a woman falsely imprisoned on Florida's death row for sixteen years (even though the real murderer confessed to the killings three years into her sentence), Byers conveys the naiveté and innocence that make a viewer's introduction to Sunny a humbling experience. The ensemble is filled out by Peter Mayer and Greg Johnston as a bevy of overbearing cops and attorneys, and by Shawn Guy-Pitts and Kim Furlow as supportive family members.

The purity of the Readers Theater form reminds us that drama is still first and foremost a listening experience. As production costs have skyrocketed, Readers Theater has found renewed popularity in productions as diverse as A. R. Gurney's Love Letters and Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues. This 95-minute, intermissionless production offers a complete and satisfying evening of provocative theater. Here the spoken word is gorgeously enhanced by Nathan Ruyle's haunting sound design, while Don Guy's lighting design layers on a stately dignity that the text sometimes lacks.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, it must be underscored that The Exonerated is polemic theater. This is advocacy theater. Authors Jessica Blank and Erik Jansen want viewers to leave the ArtLoft stunned, enraged and eager to correct a broken system. (Or, if not so ambitious as that, to at least be wary about visiting Florida and Texas.) In dealing with the gross injustices of our terribly imperfect justice system, The Exonerated is not the final story, nor is it the whole story. Yet on its own adversarial terms, it tells a riveting story -- six riveting stories -- that cannot help but make a viewer pause to wonder about all the other stories that are not being told here because falsely incarcerated inmates fell prey to a system that worked, not wisely, but too well.

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