Crime: Nothing

In the late '70s, Kerry Max Cook went to prison for the murder of a secretary from Tyler, Texas. During his trial it was said that he was homosexual. As a result, in prison, he was sodomized and brutalized by the other inmates, who cut offensive words into his flesh. Two decades later, DNA evidence showed that Cook hadn't committed the crime, and he was released from prison. The words were carved so deeply into his skin that they couldn't be removed with plastic surgery.

Cook's story is told in The Exonerated, now playing at the Alley Theatre. The play, which was created by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen from interviews and legal papers, is an artfully shaped docudrama that weaves together the narratives of six true-life victims of the judicial system. Shadowy, dark and brutally haunting, the mesmerizing production is everything live theater should be.

Each of the six people who wrongly spent time on death row for murder was eventually exonerated and set free, but none will get back the years -- in some cases, decades -- lost to a deeply flawed system.

There's some powerful acting happening at the Alley. Philip Lehl gives a convincing portrayal of Cook as a man with a profoundly broken heart. His unrelenting sorrow deepens as he talks about trying to move on with his life and make the most of the years he has left.

Among the six wrongly incarcerated are three black men, all victims of racism. K. Todd Freeman's Robert Earl Hayes is a tight wire of a man with ready fists. The ex-horse groomer rails against the whites who wrongly accused him of raping and then strangling a white woman. It's bitterly ironic that once he's freed, he can't get a license to go back to work at a race track because he's been convicted of a felony.

David Rainey plays David Keaton, a man who was coerced into signing a false confession to killing a police officer during a robbery. Though he was exonerated in 1973, he wasn't set free until 1979. As Delbert Tibbs, the hippie poet who was accused of raping a white woman and killing a white man, Alex Allen Morris manages to convey Tibbs's bitter humor over his lost years. Tibbs was more than 100 miles from the murder when it was committed, and he didn't match the original description given by the only witness to the crime.

Also terrible is Gary Gauger's story. He was convicted of murdering his parents after the police said he confessed. The truth was, Gauger never did say he'd murdered his parents; he was eventually pardoned after another man implicated himself in the murders. Jeffrey Bean makes Gauger into a soft-spoken tender heart confused by a system that could be so wrong. It's especially compelling when he tells the simple story of how he taught himself to embroider in prison to stave off boredom.

Perhaps the most terrible tale of all is that of Sunny Jacobs, played by Annalee Jefferies. Jacobs spent 17 years in prison for a double murder she didn't commit. Jefferies takes to the stage in a state of almost angelic calm to tell Jacobs's story of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, proceeding to make the most eloquent statement against the death penalty in the entire production. And when her story leads to the gruesome tale of a Florida execution gone terribly wrong, there's nothing to feel but stunned horror.

The moody, dark set is the perfect backdrop for these stories. Kevin Rigdon has created a dark landscape of despair. Under Clint Allen's lonely lights, the stage stands empty and black. Rolls of fearsome concertina wire serve as backdrop. And flanking the rear is a row of straight-backed aluminum chairs where the cast sits. They step up onto the platform stage to tell their grim stories.

The play is full of breathtaking moments that yank viewers to the edges of their seats. And Rob Bundy's understated direction doesn't get in the way. His quietly raging cast will keep the audience pulled forward throughout the 90-minute show, clutched in a stranglehold of hushed dread at the terrible injustices hidden in the dark corners of our seemingly "free world."

Texas has been responsible for almost a third of the people put to death in the United States since the late '70s. Of the 451 people on death row in Texas, 161 are from Harris County alone. The Exonerated has gotten rave reviews across the nation, from California to New York, but in no place are these stories of a broken judicial system more meaningful or devastating than right here at home.

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Lee Williams