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|A CurtainUp Berkishire Review
Coyote On a Fence
Bobby Reyburn knew no charity or wisdom or peace in his life. And the only person who ever loved him taught him how to hate
-- from John Brennan's obituary of his death row prison neighbor.
This is CurtainUp's third review of a play by Bruce Graham. Like those earlier plays (linked below), Coyote on a Fence is a provocative, incisive drama. While it can easily be viewed as a message or issue play, it never descends into polemic at the expense of entertainment.
Sure, it will have you thinking and talking about capital punishment, but for the hour and a half you're in the theater, you'll simply find yourself caught up in Graham's smart and often sardonically funny dialogue, James Warwick's crisp and edgy direction, and the superb performances of the actors.
The stage of the Unicorn Theatre has been transformed into the darkly claustrophobic world of an unnamed prison. Jessica Wade's multi-level unit set is dominated by two small adjoining prison cells, whose occupants can reach in and out of the cell bars, but cannot see each other. One of the cells is furnished to give some semblance of "home" with a shelf to hold books and photos. At one side of the cells there's a bar room booth and at the other a visiting area. Downstage is an area resembling a dog run, but actually the prisoners' exercise yard. The boxes at the top of the steps at either side of the stage are also utilized. This dynamic setup, takes us back and forth between the two convicts at the drama's center and the prison guard and New York Times reporter who help to create a sense of drama that reaches beyond the prison walls.
The action gets underway with the sounds that accompany each execution (Jason A. Tratta's eerily evocative sound design is a powerful mood setter throughout). Outside the prison gate, there's the cheering and jeering of the crowds; inside, as prisoner and editor of The Death Row Advocate John Brennan (Michael Waelter) describes it, "the silence rolls in, one cell at a time."
John, a white educated former social worker is an anomaly in the largely undereducated minority prison population. As each execution attracts protesters and pro-execution yea sayers, tearful relatives and the deafening silence spreading through the cells, it also brings an obituary by John, who is passionately committed to writing something about these men's lives that shows that, no matter what their crimes, there was a side of them that was decent.
The execution which sets the play in motion also empties out the cell next to John and brings him a new neighbor. Bobby Reyburn (Greg Keller) is everything John is not -- unschooled, rabidly racist, a mass killer. Worse still, he is as committed to his belief in a God who hates Jews and "niggars" as John is to finding good even in the face of evil. (The coyotes of the title are a metaphor for the predators who, according to Bobby, should be destroyed). The conflict between the two men is further exacerbated by Bobby's acceptance of his impending execution as a first step to heaven, which is contrary to John's belief that the death penalty is a form of murder which every prisoner must fight by demanding clemency to his last breath.
What lifts John and Bobby out of the realm of stereotypically odd couple in adjoining cells -- one who has turned what looks like an unjust imprisonment into an almost saintly cause, the other a loathsome sociopath -- are Graham's subtly honest and unromanticized characterizations, especially as interpreted by Waelter and Keller. John can be as pompously annoying and self-deluded as he is admirable, and Bobby, believe it or not, manages to charm and amuse even as he repels.
While two convicts are the pivotal characters, with the tension from the tick-tocking of the clock set to end their lives commanding our attention, the two other players help us to see the many sides of Graham's story and intensify its drama: Shawna DuChamps (Mary E. Hodges) and Sam Fried (Richard Ercole), a Jewish reporter from The New York Times who's read the Death Row Advocate and requested a series of interviews with John.
Shawna is, like the tick-tocking clock, always present, always in her prison guard uniform even when she is in the bar room booth addressing an invisible reporter. Sam Fried (Richard Ercole) challenges John's insistence that capital punishment is murder. He admires the writing of the obituaries but sees them as a whitewash. At one point he passionately defends the article he wrote about John's obituaries as "undemonizing" the men who are monsters to the rest of the world: "You people frighten us. We-are-not-the-bad-guys just because we want to protect ourselves."
Sam and Shawna could be viewed strictly as devices for presenting society's view of how to judge and deal with murderers. However, like John and Bobby, they are fully dimensioned, flesh and blood people, played with immense feeling and sympathy. Ms. Hodges who, according to her program bio is fresh out of acting school, is simply terrific as the prison guard. Wearied and toughened by close to twenty years as a prison guard she's as impatient with the "ya-hoos out there blowin' their horns" as the excuses of those she guards about what landed them in prison. And yet, underneath all her cussin' and hard as nails talk, there's a remaining spark of compassion for people like John and a yearning for the reporters (and by extension, society) to view her as an ordinary, good person.
Coyote on a Fence has moments when it veers towards cliche. It is, in spite of the playwright's not wanting it to fit that label, a message play -- albeit an entertaining one. It is also a play that is best suited to small theaters like the Unicorn and the Blue Heron Arts Center Off-Broadway where it ran briefly last season. Wherever it goes next, I couldn't think of a better director than James Warwick or a more impressive cast than the quartet he's assembled here to insure its success.
LINKS TO OTHER CurtainUpREVIEWS BY BRUCE GRAHAM
The Belmont Avenue Social Club