From the ChicagoTribune:
Though the shootings of unarmed black men by police officers have understandably had an increasing profile in public discourse since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Mo., the Agency Theater Collective’s latest offering, “At the Center,” highlights another troubling aspect of our criminal justice system. Despite a few stiff polemicizing moments, it’s a largely gripping and thoughtful drama that goes beyond Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank’s widely produced “The Exonerated,” about death row inmates who were found innocent.
Inspired by interviews with attorneys and staff at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s School of Law, the play (written and directed by Andrew Gallant and Tim Touhy) presents a fictional account of Hector Reyes (Armando Reyes), who has spent 19 years in prison for the brutal rape and stabbing of Elizabeth Harvey (Sommer Austin). The latter has spent the years since the assault fighting addictions and largely turning over the raising of her teenage daughter, Rebecca (Nicole Magerko), to her sister Kathleen (Sarah Welborn).
When DNA testing proves Hector is innocent — despite his confessing to the crime and Elizabeth identifying him from a photo array as her attacker — both find their lives turned upside down.
This is where Gallant and Touhy’s play is at its strongest. By showing us Hector’s attempts to reassimilate (he saves receipts from shopping trips because the date and time stamps will provide him with alibis), as well as Elizabeth’s guilt and horror at having identified the wrong man, “At the Center” forces us to look at the cascading consequences of detectives who are eager to close the books on violent crimes.
It also provides insight into why innocent people will confess under duress (even if it’s not physical abuse), and why eyewitness testimony is less than reliable. Reyes and Austin deliver powerhouse performances, and their climactic face-to-face meeting pays off without feeling like a cheap tidy-bow reconciliation.
The weakest parts of the show, ironically, are those involving the attorneys. They aren’t quite fleshed out beyond their good-hearted Samaritan outlines. But when James Munson’s Bill (based on the center’s executive director, Rob Warden) philosophizes that wrongful convictions happen because some crimes are so horrific that society demands that someone — anyone — must pay the penalty, whether truly guilty or not, it holds a mirror up to our collective thirst for vengeance masquerading as justice.
Through Nov. 2, Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.; $25 atwearetheagency.org