Department of Theater, GMU Players Present ‘The Exonerated’

Posted: November 16, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 13, 2009 at 4:51 pm

GMU Players and Mason’s Department of Theater bring Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s “The Exonerated” to the stage beginning Nov. 19.

This poignant work seeks to answer the question “What does it truly mean to be exonerated?” through the words of six innocent men and women who emerged from years on death row to reclaim what is left of their lives.

Directed by Katheryn Welsh, “The Exonerated” will be performed in the Black Box Theater in the Performing Arts Building on Mason’s Fairfax Campus on Nov. 19, 20 and 21 at 8 p.m., and Nov. 21 and 22 at 2 p.m.

Blank and Jensen began writing “The Exonerated” in 2000 after they took a road trip across America to meet almost 40 former death row inmates who had been proclaimed innocent after having been convicted of a crime.

During the process, they compiled the interviews of six exonerated people and then constructed the play entirely out of the interviews and from various court documents and case files. The lines of the play spoken by the characters are the actual words used by the exonerated men and women.

They share their stories openly, and the result is an appalling exposure of the police and prosecutorial misconduct that led to the conviction and condemnation of these innocent individuals. The stories are excerpts of lives destroyed and time wasted – one man spent 22 years on death row – but the play also has humorous moments and is a testimony to the fact that hope and faith can survive even in the bleakest of situations.

Blank and Jensen married in 2001, and in the spring of 2002, they co-directed the first performance of “The Exonerated” at The Actors’ Gang Theater in Los Angeles. The play was incredibly successful, running off-Broadway for two years and logging more than 600 performances.

Renowned actors including Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh and others performed the play at various times throughout its run. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan attended a special performance of the play and later said it was a factor in his decision a month later to grant clemency to all inmates on death row in Illinois.

Blank and Jensen won the Champion of Justice Award from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers for their efforts. “The Exonerated” has been nominated for five Ovation Awards and three NAACP awards. It won the Ovation for Best World Premier Play, 2003 Lucille Lortel Award, Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play and a Drama Desk Award.

In 2005, “The Exonerated” was made into a film directed by Bob Balaban and starred Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover, Aidan Quinn, Susan Sarandon and David Brown Jr.

Katheryn Welsh, who directs the GMU Players’ production, is a Mason junior. She previously appeared in the GMU Players’ productions of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” She directed “Homecoming” in last year’s Ten Minute Play Festival and will design the sets for the “The Nerd” in the spring. Welsh is currently president of the GMU Players and works closely with Theater of the First Amendment. She is also a teacher for Acting for Young People.

The GMU Players ensemble is a dynamic, faculty-directed student organization within the Theater Department. The Mainstage Series provides students the opportunity to work directly with Mason theater faculty and guest artists, while the Studio Series is selected, directed and designed by students. The GMU Players produce eight productions each season.

Tickets are $6 ($3 for students, seniors and Mason faculty and staff). Limited free tickets are available for Mason students.

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