At the Center, a production created by Tim Touhy and performed by the Chicago Dramatists Theater, focuses on the ripple effect of wrongful convictions across the lives of the many different people affected by them. The play focuses its attentions on a fictional exoneree and his family along with a victim and hers, as well as the innocence organization that worked toward the exoneree’s release. The final act culminates in the first meeting between all of the parties; one which is aimed at restoration between the exoneree and the victim.
One of the play’s primary protagonists is the exoneree himself, Hector Reyes, and the different stages of his post-exoneration experience. Although brief, an interrogation scene that produces a false confession spoke well to the tactics that police officers frequently employ to coerce admissions of guilt. This scene serves not only as a riveting early set-piece in the play, but also as an educational demonstration of the circumstances under which an innocent person would confess to something he did not do. In its exploration of Hector immediately after release, the play centers on his attempts to navigate a world that has evolved without him, while he was confined to a prison cell for decades for a wrongful conviction of rape. Additionally, the play briefly illustrates Hector’s post-traumatic stress in the form of a dream sequence that recalled the officer who interrogated him.
Intertwined with this depiction of Hector was that of his sister, the family member who took him in as soon as he was released from prison. The play demonstrates her varied emotions, ranging from elation upon his release, to concern about his post-traumatic behaviors, to frustration, as she struggles to connect with him after his long incarceration.
The play shares its focus with the victim of the original crime, Elizabeth Harvey, who struggles to cope with her rape and its emotional aftermath, as she tries to care for a teenaged daughter who is unaware of her past trauma. This struggle is compounded when Elizabeth discovers that Hector, whom she believed had been her assailant, might be released soon. The play underlines how frustrating an already difficult process can be for victims when the state’s attorneys who, initially reaching out to notify them of upcoming proceedings, suddenly begin to dodge their calls leaving them feeling helpless. The play also emphasized the extreme guilt that Elizabeth feels when she realizes that she had inadvertently sent the wrong man to prison, leaving the guilty party free to commit further crimes.
Tying these groups of people together is the innocence organization that helps to free Hector, a group that, as is often the case, includes both lawyers and law students working to free him. Although they are initially focused entirely on helping to release Hector and helping him to familiarize himself with his new freedom, they shift focus toward restoration between Hector and Elizabeth. While the depiction of the restorative process is not entirely accurate, it does help to showcase the benefits of restorative justice and the healing effects that it can produce.
One of the strongest features of At the Center is its inclusion of as many different perspectives as possible, illustrating the broad scope of those affected by wrongful convictions. Through this depiction, the audience receives a fuller understanding of what happens when an innocent person is sent to prison. Additionally, the acting was superb, and each separate character, no matter how minor or major, powerfully conveyed the wide range of emotions experienced by those involved in the process, both as they work toward an exoneration, as well as after their release, when they struggle to learn how to function inwhat is now a deeply unfamiliar world. For exonerees in the audience, the play truly spoke to their experiences by addressing the phenomenon comprehensively and compassionately. The end result was a moving production that left many of the audience members in tears.