Specifically devised in such a way that raises more questions than it offers any answers, “Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project” centers around the true and controversial case of a young black man convicted (in 1991) and subsequently executed (20 years later) for the shooting death of a white police officer in Savannah.
Four years in development, the drama was commissioned by Synchronicity Theatre artistic director Rachel May, and it’s penned by Atlanta playwright Lee Nowell (whose previous credits include the 2010 Actor’s Express thriller “Albatross” and who was appointed Synchronicity’s managing director in 2015).
Beyond any doubt, indeed, the show is exceedingly well-researched by Nowell — culled from a plethora of trial transcripts and legal documents, varying eyewitness interviews and widespread media coverage. In May’s earnestly felt production, an ensemble of “utility” actors (Cynthia D. Barker, John Benzinger, Eddie Bradley Jr. and Danielle Deadwyler) serves as a glorified Greek chorus of so many talking heads, rattling off an impressive amount of facts and figures.
Just as surely, neither Davis nor Mark MacPhail (the slain cop) is actually represented on stage. Instead, “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” utilizes two different sets of fictional characters to illustrate the “divisive” opposing views at hand — primarily involving the Davis case, in particular, but also including larger debates about the criminal justice system and capital punishment, in general.
One act concerns the personal and professional struggles of a “burned-out” white woman (Lane Carlock) and her caring husband (Eric Mendenhall). The other act portrays the generational gap between a disillusioned Morehouse student (Stephen Ruffin) and his activist grandmother (Terry Henry). In both cases, some of the woman’s and the student’s preconceived beliefs about Davis’ guilt or innocence are eventually challenged.
In the interest of fairness and balance, the acts will be performed in alternating order from one night to the next. The most striking moments in May’s Synchronicity production present mirrored re-creations of a protest rally where those two pivotal characters figuratively cross paths, staged from her perspective in one act and from his in the other.
Elsewhere, that conceit can seem less purposeful (or even necessary at all): e.g., an extraneous scene depicting the husband’s night out with a drinking buddy is countered by another extraneous scene depicting the grandmother’s night out with a gossiping girlfriend.
The cast is uniformly fine, but “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” doesn’t deliver nearly as much of an emotional punch as you might want or expect from a drama that otherwise wears its heart so firmly on its sleeve. Before long, Nowell’s fictitious characters start sounding less like “real” people and more like theatrical mouthpieces for a lot of didactic platitudes.
Each half of the play climaxes prior to Davis’ inevitable execution, which has the odd effect of making the show itself feel anticlimactic. While there’s definitely something to be said for leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions, in another sense it’s rather a cop-out.