Riverwalk’s ‘The Exonerated’ is a gripping and haunting look at wrongful conviction


In the 1760s, English jurist William Blackstone wrote, “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Riverwalk Theatre’s current production, “The Exonerated,” makes a compelling case for this maxim by giving a voice to innocents who suffered deep injustice.

Based on the true stories of five men and one woman who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in the United States, “The Exonerated” is a gripping and haunting script. The stories unravel over the course of an intense 90 minutes, revealing the shortcomings of our criminal justice system, particularly for people of color and those who live in poverty. 

Playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen bookend the work with the poetry of Delbert Tibbs, a Black man who was convicted of murder and rape in Florida. He’s played by Julian Van Dyke, who captures well the attitude of a man who accepts things as they are, however unjust, while still hoping for a better world.

Although all of the stories are engrossing, several performances are particularly mesmerizing. Holly Kay-Cannon plays Sunny Jacobs, a young mom who was convicted of murder after being drawn into a situation in which two police officers were shot to death. Kay-Cannon effectively embodies the complex personality of a self-proclaimed hippie who suffered more than 15 years of unjust incarceration.

As Robert Earl Hayes, the lanky Wulf Hogan brings a casual comfortability to his role. Yet when describing the continued injustice Hayes suffered after being released, as well as the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by many returning citizens, Hogan exudes a world-weariness well beyond his years. 

When revisiting the aforementioned maxim about the tradeoff between letting 10 guilty people go free and letting one innocent suffer, one important aspect to remember is that the innocent person is not the only one who suffers. The story of Kerry Max Cook, portrayed by Adam Bright, is the perfect example of how families can be destroyed by wrongful convictions. 

Bright shares the most harrowing experiences in the production, baring his soul as he tells of the abuses Cook endured while incarcerated. Even worse, he reveals how Cook’s brother became collateral damage in the fallout of Cook’s fate. At first, Bright is tightly controlled in his storytelling, but the conflicting emotions of loss and love crack his façade in true heart- and gut-wrenching fashion.

Riverwalk’s Black Box is the perfect venue for this production because a larger stage and slick production values would detract from the stories. The intimacy of the small space creates a powerful bond between the characters and the audience. The show is staged with minimalism in mind, featuring just 10 folding chairs and some boxes with a few costume elements and props. 

Joseph Dickson’s lighting design employs a few strobes, police lights and spotlights. And what powerful spotlights they are. Actors may be changing costumes to take on different roles, but one only knows this after they step forward into those spotlights. Once a character steps into the light and begins speaking, the rest of the stage fades away.

Alan Greenberg chose an important and challenging work for his directorial debut. Although one could sit at home and watch the star-studded 2005 film version of “The Exonerated,” it can’t compare to experiencing these stories live. As society continues to grapple with criminal justice reform, this show is proof positive that equal protection under the law is still a goal, not a reality.



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