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The Exonerated

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This chamber-theater docudrama depicts the harrowing and transformative experiences of six people sentenced to death for murders they didn't commit--men and women who lost years on death row before new evidence (DNA, a confession from the real killer) set them free. Given the intense nature of the material--tales of psychological and physical brutalization at the hands of police, prosecutors, prison guards, and other inmates--The Exonerated is notably understated. The text, assembled by playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen from interviews and court documents, presents a damning indictment of a law-enforcement system that, as former Illinois governor George Ryan recently observed, is "broken." The case histories (which include that of Gary Gauger, whose conviction was overturned thanks to a follow-up investigation by Northwestern University journalism students) are rife with instances of prosecutorial and political misconduct, media fearmongering, racial and antigay prejudice, and plain old stupidity. But the cast assembled by producer-director Bob Balaban (which includes Brian Dennehy, Marlo Thomas, William Jay Marshall, Ed Blunt, and the brilliant Bruce MacVittie) avoids preaching, relying instead on soft-spoken honesty. Sitting in a row of chairs on a bare stage, the actors employ a compelling economy of gesture and verbal inflection that reveals more about the confusion, rage, despair, and spiritual rebirth experienced by exonerated prisoners than exaggerated dramatics ever could. Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe, 312-902-1400. Through February 16: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 5 and 8:30 PM; Sundays, 3 and 7:30 PM. $15-$65.

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