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Speaking for the innocent

In The Exonerated, a play about people imprisoned on death row for crimes they didn't commit, actor Sandy Duncan finds a touchstone.

Published July 28, 2005

Sandy Duncan is best known for her performances in musicals like Peter Pan, The Boyfriend and The King and I, but this weekend she'll be in St. Petersburg for the stylistic opposite of song and dance. In two shows to benefit American Stage, Duncan stars in The Exonerated, a gritty drama about six men and women wrongly accused of capital crimes who were on death row for years before being freed.

Duncan has never done the play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen before and has no previous history with the St. Petersburg theater, which contacted her management through an industry Web site. "They called and asked. It was just that simple," she said from her New York apartment.

"I want to do it to help raise money for the American Stage theater because I believe in supporting theater all over this country. I just got back from a national tour, and I think theater between L.A. and New York is viable and very healthy, in fact, in some ways more healthy than here in New York. I like to encourage any kind of regional theater and support it and be part of it."

The Exonerated, drawn from real-life stories, makes a powerful case against the death penalty. "I come from Texas originally," Duncan said. "It is the state with more death penalties than any other, and I'm not very proud of that fact because I think mistakes are made. That's a frightening thought for anyone, to be completely innocent of something and put in prison for years and years and years."

Duncan is unabashed about her liberal politics and the contradiction she sees in those who support the death penalty and also oppose abortion.

"People who are so strongly against pro-choice and seem to be thinking you shouldn't be taking another life are the very people in favor of the death penalty," she said. "They want to act like God on one hand and not on the other. It always confuses me, that message."

A number of local non-actors will join her in the performance. Antonio Tarver, the light-heavyweight boxing champ, who wants to go into acting after his ring career is over, will make his stage debut. Others are the Rev. Louis Murphy of the Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church; Darryl Rouson, outgoing president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP; lawyer Diane Bailey; and Tampa's creative industries manager, Paul Wilborn.

The Exonerated is typically done as a reading, with the performers having scripts in hand. "They won't have to memorize lines and so forth," Duncan said. "So that will take the pressure off."

There are some Tampa Bay area actors in the cast, including Monica Raymund, Bob Devin Jones, Ned Averill-Snell, Steven Clark Pachosa, Tom Nowicki and Wendy Bagger. American Stage artistic director Todd Olson also has a part.

Duncan will play Sunny Jacobs, described as a "bright, pixieish yoga teacher" in the script. Jacobs languished in prison for 16 years for two police murders she didn't commit (and for which her husband, also innocent, was executed). Susan Sarandon played her in a Court TV production of the play that also starred Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover and Aidan Quinn.

The reading format works especially well, Duncan said, with stories like those of The Exonerated.

"These are very strong characters telling about their lives, and the more simple it is, the better. A reading allows the audience to focus and really listen. The pacing is usually good because people have the material at hand. Also there's not that tendency to detract from the words by overemotionalizing the quality of what you're talking about."

American Stage is hoping to put a dent in some accumulated debt with proceeds from The Exonerated, which is being performed at Eckerd College's 350-seat Bininger Theater. Tickets are $50, or $85 for a reception with Duncan and the show on Saturday.

"Our working figure is to net $16,000, and that's meaningful for a theater our size," Olson said. "The biggest fundraiser we do every year is the gala for Shakespeare in the Park, and we make some $25,000 on that."

If The Exonerated is successful, the theater might have similar fundraisers. "We're studying how it goes and may do a sort of star theater event like this every year, a staged reading of different kinds of works that we couldn't ordinarily do," Olson said.

Duncan, 59, came to stage fame when she starred in a 1979 revival that was the longest-running Peter Pan on Broadway. "It was a big event in my life," she said, recalling some of her favorite memories from the musical.

"The night Mary Martin (Peter Pan in 1954 on Broadway) came to see me, that was a big deal. I said, "You're my Peter Pan.' And she said, "And you're mine,' because she'd never seen the show until that night."

And then there was the night when Peter Pan's flying wire got wrapped around a light and Duncan had to stop the show and get it loose. "You paid a lot of money to see me fly, and we're going to do it right," she told the audience.

PREVIEW: In a benefit for American Stage, The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Bininger Theater of Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. $50. Saturday's performance is preceded by a VIP reception at 6:30 p.m. $85 for reception and performance. 727 823-7529;

[Last modified July 27, 2005, 09:54:07]

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