The jury has reached a verdict: Gary Gauger, guilty of murdering his mother and father — sentenced for three years. Robert Earl Hayes, guilty of raping and murdering his co-worker — sentenced for six years. Kerry Max Cook, guilty of murdering a female acquaintance — sentenced for 22 years.
This is the fate of some of the characters represented in “The Exonerated,” the first main-stage theatrical production of the year at Ithaca College.
The show revolves around six individuals who were wrongly convicted of murder and forced to serve time in prison for multiple sentences. Each character’s story is intricately intertwined with the stories of the other convicts, and they all lead to the characters’ eventual exoneration, or release, from confinement. The play touches on issues such as racism, sexism and the death penalty.
Senior cast member Jeff Crosley, who plays multiple roles in the show’s ensemble, said the effect these issues have on the main characters plays a central role in the show.
“It’s about six incredibly strong people and what they do to overcome their trials,” Crosley said. “It’s a testament to the strength of the human spirit.”
The actors’ dedication to their roles was strengthened by their efforts to do justice to the stories told.
In the show, actors play more than one character during different scenes. This ensemble casting choice is a commonly used tactic in shows with many small character roles.
Senior Clint Hromsco, another actor who plays several characters, said having an ensemble cast serves to solidify the stories of the play’s many characters.
“[The ensemble cast] keeps things unified and keeps everyone connected in some way,” Hromsco said.
Cynthia Henderson, director of the show and associate professor of theater arts at the college, said the actors were able to meet her high expectations.
“I’ve been wanting to direct this show for a while now,” she said. “I feel like I have a terrific cast. They have taken every challenge I have put forth and just run with it.”
The cast, mostly made up of juniors and seniors, has been rehearsing since the first week of school. Henderson said preparation for “The Exonerated” included extensive research into the criminal justice system, as well as the histories of the men and women portrayed in the show.
“When I set up time to discuss their research, I [set aside] maybe about 45 minutes,” Henderson said. We ended up spending almost two hours because they had done so much.”
Henderson said the selfless bond the actors share is the driving force behind their work.
“There are no stars in this show,” she said.
To warm up, the actors perform an exercise called amoeba, in which they make flowing movements together while connected by their arms, hands or legs.
Henderson said the exercise helped the actors become a well-oiled machine with a common goal of expressing the message of the show.
“They have internalized all their work and made it a true part of the life that they are bringing to these people,” Henderson said.
The set and overall design concept is another feature that brings out the theme of the production. The design is minimalist: chairs and lighting effects are used to represent locations, moods and the focal point of a scene.
Freshman Luke Wise, who is in a Theatrical Production class that helped build sets for “The Exonerated,” said the approach serves to narrow the the audience’s focus.
“The set doesn’t distract from the action of the play,” Wise said. “It allows the audience to focus their attention to the plot and characters.”
The show intends to start a discussion as well as bring about awareness on the flaws in our nation’s legal system. Senior Jaylene Clark, part of the ensemble, said “The Exonerated” is a piece that will provoke thought and understanding in its audience.
“You may even be moved to take action,” she said.
“The Exonerated” will be performed at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Oct. 9 to 11, with 2 p.m. matinees offered Oct. 11 and 12, in the Clark Theatre at Dillingham Center.