Theater Review: “Coyote on a Fence” — Drama on Death Row
In a surprisingly quick 100 minutes, this smart play forces us to confront our own preconceived notions about good and evil.
Coyote on a Fence by Bruce Graham. Directed by Daniel Bourque. Scenic design by Megan Kineen; Lighting design by Jeremy Stein; Costume design by Nancy Ishihara; Sound design by Grant Furgiuele. Staged by Hub Theatre Company of Boston at the First Church in Boston, Marlborough Street, Boston, MA, through April 15.
By David Greenham
About half way through Bruce Graham’s Coyote on a Fence, death row inmate Bobby Reyburn (Cameron Gesselin) immerses himself in the words of St. Francis of Assisi: Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance. Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor vexation. Where there is poverty and joy, there is neither greed nor avarice. Where there is peace and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor doubt.
The sentiment even moves the convicted murderer in the cell next to him, John Brennan (Mark Kraczyk). For a moment it’s possible for Brennan to forget that he’s repulsed by everything Reyburn stands for. We’re even willing to pause and wonder if somewhere, deep inside, Reyburn feels remorse for his heinous crime. But a moment later the prisoner reminds us that he’s not. He’s a rabidly racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic member of Aryan Nations, a man who killed 37 men, women, and children in a church by blocking the exit and setting the building ablaze. And he’s proud of his crime. The words of St. Francis are undoubtedly inspirational, but are there limits to our own charity and wisdom? Indeed there are.
In a surprisingly quick 100 minutes, Graham’s smart play forces us to confront our own preconceived notions about good and evil. Brennan is a former prison counselor who became an alcoholic and drug addict. When a dealer tried to cheat on a sale, he kicked him to death. “Allegedly,” he insists. Despite the opinion of a jury of his peers and his pending death by lethal injection, Brennan still won’t admit to his crime.
Reyburn, on the other hand, freely admits his crime. In fact, he’s proud of his deed because God told him to do it. Playwright Graham turns the screws even tighter by making Brennan educated, intelligent, and liberal and Reyburn the polar opposite – an uneducated racist who can barely write a sentence.
Who is more evil? An educated agnostic who kills but won’t admit it, or an uneducated man who stands by his actions and praises his God?
The play also presents two other characters – prison guard Shawna DuChamps (soft-spoken Regine Vital) and New York Times reporter Sam Fried (Robert Orzalli). Both are storytellers. Fried has been assigned to do a feature on Brennan’s newspaper, The Death Row Advocate. DuChamps has a series of monologues in a bar after work where she’s talking to a different reporter about what’s it’s like to be a guard on death row.
As Brennan, Kraczyk is intense and driven. He’s extremely self-righteous and believes he has the proper sense of how the world should work. He claims to want to avoid becoming attached to people, but he is. Letters from his ex-wife about their daughter (as well as photos) are his life line. He prides himself on his writing for the paper; he even comes up with kind, humanist obituaries for each inmate who is killed by state-sponsored lethal injection. Funny thing though – he never mentions their crimes.
Gesselin’s Reyburn is scary yet surprisingly ordinary. He’s passionately devoted to his particularly virulent brand of hate, but he radiates the innocence of a child. He’d like to have his letter to the editor printed in Brennan’s newspaper and spends his time working to take his thoughts beyond “the food here sucks.” He doesn’t have the tools to go much deeper, and Brennan doesn’t really have the patience to help him. Still, they begin to find some common ground. But Reyburn isn’t pursuing any avenues for appeal, and time eventually runs out.
As the guard, Vital is centered and gentle. Perhaps at times she comes off a little too quiet. Her monologues are fluid and matter-of-fact, which makes them easy to listen to and a refreshing contrast to the rough talk in the prison, which is layered over Grant Furgiuele’s background sounds of the hum of prison life: footsteps and chatter. The character forges strong connections with Krawczyk’s Brennan, which makes for some rich unspoken moments.
The relationship between Fried and Brennan is less clear. It’s both adversarial and co-dependent, but at the end the play lets the contradictions dangle. Time – as it must on death row – runs out.
Set designer Megan Kineen has transformed the small First Church space into a very workable representation of a prison row and director (as well as Hub’s Associate Artistic Director) Daniel Bourque uses the space well and modulates the emotions of the play wisely. All four characters are surprisingly at ease, despite the mounting tension of the situation. The scenes flow by simply; the transitions are seamless. Bourque does an outstanding job of bringing this play to life in a way that allows us to consider the disturbing issues at stake. At its core, this play is somewhat allegorical; it is not so much about individuals as it is the broader issues they represent.
Coyote on a Fence is based on the story of Texas death row inmate James Beathard. Like Brennan, he wrote obituaries of the executed convicts for a newspaper. The obituaries neglected to mention the crime that placed them on death row. And that is a key to the script’s dramatic power: the drama is about the stories we share, and the ones we don’t.
Brennan and Reyburn represent just two of the 3,000 or so death row felons that America has allowed to languish in jail during any given year. In the last decade we’ve averaged between 40 and 50 executions a year. Last year, there were 20 men executed. Just this month Arkansas has scheduled 8 executions. Coyote on a Fence helps us think — hard — about that fact.
Coyote on a Fence received its Boston premiere almost 15 years ago, but in an era of alternative facts and fake news, the script might be even more sentient now than it was then.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.