For most of us, the timing and manner of our deaths is not a matter to which we are privy. But for the convicts on death row in Bruce Graham's taut and compelling drama Coyote on a Fence, the knowledge of their impending executions is an inescapable fact of existence. For John Brennan (Jim Howard), the cynical editor of the prison's Death Row Advocate, it is a destiny to be fought and denied. For his cell partner, Bobby Alvin Reyburn (T. Robert Pigott), a naive, childlike bigot who burned down a black church, killing 37 parishioners it is a welcome appointment that will release him from a life of violence and abuse, while granting him a free ticket "to a much better place."
Graham's 1998 prison play is based on his correspondence with James Beathard, a real-life convict in Texas who wrote obituaries for prisoners. Likewise, Beathard's counterpart in the play, Brennan, writes sanitized eulogies for those who are put to death, so as not to let "the last thing said about the men in here be ugly." Because he is in denial about his own responsibility for a murder committed during a drug deal, he endeavors to find what good he can in men society has judged as monsters.
But Orlando Theatre Project's Coyote on a Fence is more than just a psychological rumination about two criminals who bond within the confinement of the big house. As Brennan tries to come to grips with his own fate and that of Reyburn's who has fired his lawyers in a bid to embrace his demise as just recompense for his crime Graham forces us to confront the nature and wellsprings of evil, as well as the burning questions surrounding capital punishment as the solution for those who can no longer be tolerated by the world outside.
As witnesses to the final days of the two prisoners, Graham offers the characters of Shawna DuChamps (Christine Decker), a no-nonsense prison guard who tries to do her job without emotion, but who can never bring herself to look at the prisoners; and Sam Fried (Chris Pfingsten), a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter whose ambiguity about the death penalty mirrors the divide in our nation's consciousness.
What makes Graham's drama (under the nuanced and thoughtful direction of Chris Jorie) so powerful is its lack of pat answers to the questions it raises. For instance, Reyburn, whose rabid racism is unrelenting and whose crime was monstrous, is neither a monster nor a man without a soul. We come to see that what drove him to his unforgivable act was the hatred that infected him at an early age by way of the only other human being who showed him any love. And though Brennan seems innocent, his flashes of anger and intolerance suggest a man whose innate imbalance may well have led him to commit the ultimate act of aggression.
Portraying the play's four very human characters with intelligence and insight is a quartet of accomplished OTP veterans. As Shawna, Decker gives us a woman of limited intelligence who is still savvy enough to see through the hypocrisies on both sides of the capital-punishment debate. Pfingsten's reporter is a no-nonsense chronicler of "the truth" who realizes that, in the end, what is true is merely a compilation of many sides of the same story.
Howard shows the varied faces of Brennan: the prissy fastidiousness of the journalist who can't abide the misspellings of his less educated comrades; the crusader who fights for the rights of those same hapless brethren; the loneliness of the odd man out, condemned to 16-hour days of bright lights and blaring television inanity; the self-delusion of a man who hangs onto the myth of his innocence as well as his belief that a loud, impassioned voice can rise above the din of those who noisily celebrate outside the prison walls after each execution.
But it is Pigott's eerily fascinating channeling of Reyburn's twisted yet simple-minded personality that rivets the audience's attention and sympathies throughout the play's uninterrupted 90 minutes. Whether raging wildly, flapping his arms like a trapped bird while complaining about the food, spouting the Aryan brotherhood creed, or cooing over the possibility of being buried in a new suit like a child contemplating Christmas morning, Pigott's Reyburn is a complex and exuberant portrait of a child/man whose evil is as hard to pinpoint as his guilt is easy to ascertain. It is a performance absolutely not to be missed in a play that is provocative and mightily in tune with the times.
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