Crime and character. Good and evil. Justice and revenge. Out of these elements, Bruce Graham has created a gem of a drama, compressed and multifaceted. In the taut and unsettling Coyote on a Fence, produced by Urban Stages, the playwright trains his searching beam on two neighbors on death row, upending stereotypes to create one of the most provocative dramas of the season. Though tomes have been written about the genesis of evil, rarely are we made to confront the nature of innocence. We do here.
John Brennen (Tom Stechschulte) is a model prisoner. Convicted of murdering a drug dealer, the educated, white inmate publishes a more-than-literate prison newspaper, The Death Row Advocate. His new cell neighbor, Bobby Reyburn (Paul Sparks), is a rabid redneck racist, awaiting execution for torching a church and killing the 47 black men, women, and children inside. Bobby, spouting racial and anti-Semitic vitriol, hails John as his Aryan brother. At first repelled, John gradually begins to see Bobby as a childlike simpleton who’s legally insane.
Born damaged, Bobby was abused at every stage of his life; in prison he’s been half-blinded, gang-raped, and nearly crippled. When not assailing the “jungle bunnies” in jail, he does hilarious animal imitations—iguana and toad are his best—and wheedles John for affection. Inducted into the Aryan brotherhood by the only relative who ever showed him love, he believes God ordered him to burn the church and refuses to appeal his sentence. He is a blissed-out yokel longing to join Jesus in heaven. John, waging his own war against the death sentence, begs visiting New York Times reporter Sam Fried (David Letwin) to take up Bobby’s case. Shawnna (Pam Hart), a tough female prison guard shepherding the inmates, must witness the executions and cope with the cheers of the mobs outside.
Each of these characters comes across as solid and complex—none more so than the almost lovable Bobby. Graham deftly shifts our sympathies and challenges our expectations without ever sentimentalizing or falling back on cliché. So well constructed is the play that the last chilling effects are achieved with the lightest of touches. The writing is elegantly simple and often downright funny. It proceeds silkily, like the sudden cessation of noise that descends on the prison after each execution: “The silence rolls in one cell at a time,” John explains.
Director Lou Jacob plays this clamor and silence like a master instrumentalist, with the help of Marc Gwinn’s disturbingly realistic sound design—a prison din of clanging metal, shouts, and TV. Scenes overlap smoothly as the players on Klara Zieglerova’s effectively spare prison set are spotlighted or shaded by Jeff Nellis’s somber lighting.
Sparks gives a not-to-be-forgotten performance as Bobby. Limping, cross-eyed, bounding like a playground kid, he segues from rapturous hate to zany playfulness to the pathos of a wounded child. Stechschulte’s John is steely and disciplined, rage etched into his impassive face, poised between denial of guilt and acknowledgment. Letwin brings dimension to the journalist with mixed motives, and Hart’s Shawnna is cool and sassy but shot with sweetness. They fulfill Graham’s vision of shifting, relative truths, where no one can be reduced to a label.
Coyote on a Fence, for all its surprises, takes a straightforward narrative approach. Jessica Goldberg’s The Hologram Theory tackles murder and character revelation through a more conceptual construction—as a series of “pieces,” which, like the parts of the murdered man’s body, are meant to coalesce into a transcendent whole. Unfortunately, this ambitious conceit doesn’t play on stage, though Goldberg’s a skilled, intuitive creator of character, as she recently demonstrated in Refuge.
The dead man, Dominic, is a Trinidadian who gets sucked into New York’s druggy club scene, dies mysteriously, and gets dismembered by a cultlike “family” of kids under the spell of the Manson-ish Joe Buck. Dominic’s wandering spirit calls on his twin sister, Patsy, to bring him justice and peace. The decent, gutsy Patsy travels to New York and, with the help of an admiring cop, finds her way to the kids—Mimi, Julian, and Tweety—and determinedly recovers the scattered remnants of her brother’s body. Meanwhile, Mimi’s reporter stepsister, Sara, seduces Julian’s film-director father, and Patsy’s cop friend and would-be lover fends off jealousy from his brassy Brooklyn fiancée.
In Ruben Polendo’s throbbing, glitzy staging against red metallic walls, this almost works at first. The ensemble really clicks, especially in the needy physicality of the speedball-hopped-up kids. But in the second act, as Patsy, foot by foot and hand by hand, collects her brother’s smelly remains (housed in shiny silver boxes), nothing seems credible.
The acting reaches a high level—when the script allows it. Joie Susannah Lee projects a fierce decency and earthiness as Patsy, and Chris Messina’s demonic Joe Buck, writhing his wiry body and flicking his nipples, is striking. Goldberg stretches for breadth and scale, but she jams in too many characters and plots. Yet even amid the rubble of this play you can see small, touching cameos of young, wasted souls.