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A balanced Coyote on a Fence

by Jules Becker
Wednesday Apr 5, 2017

Coyote on a Fence, Hub Theatre Company of Boston, First Church in Boston (Marlborough at Berkeley), through April 15. Pay-What-You-Can. www.hubtheatrecompany.org

Are some Death Row inmates more worthy of life imprisonment than others? Is the death penalty ever justified? What effect do such capital punishment cases have on journalists and prison staff? These are some of the nagging questions Bruce Graham explores in his still-timely drama ''Coyote on a Fence,'' now in a powerfully disturbing revival by Hub Theatre Company of Boston.

Inspired by actual events about two decades ago, Graham's Rosenthal Prize winner (1998 for a new play) resonates with new freshness today. "Coyote on a Fence" takes its audience to a prison in the south where theatergoers confront the stark experiences of two Death Row inmates confined for 23 hours a day in side-by-side cells, a you-are-there scenario, here heightened by the intimate theater space at First Church Boston. Prison guard Shawna Du Champ doubles as an unsentimental employee and a candidly informative narrator.

The inmates in question are an arresting study in contrast. Middle-aged John Brennan reads extensively and edits the Death Row paper. Twenty something Robert Alvin 'Bobby' Reyburn lacks education, speaks with bad grammar and writes with bad spelling and frequent use of slang like 'sucks.' Death Row veteran Brennan kicked a cocaine drug dealer to death, while newcomer Reyburn (think of convicted South Carolina neo-Nazi Dylann Roof) killed nearly 40 congregants at an African-American church (many of them children), setting the building on fire and blocking the exit with his truck. John seems to be in relative denial, but White Supremacist Robert blames his incarceration on "Jewish law" and believes he is innocent in the eyes of God.

If this contrast sounds diagrammatic, do not be fooled. Brennan may despise Reyburn's beliefs but he does try to understand him, especially after learning that a White Supremacist uncle taught the early orphan to hate blacks and Jews. John even helps Bobby edit a letter in which he complains about prison food. Adding to the complexity of the play's riveting prison dynamics are Shawna's rarely sympathetic reflections about an inmate and the entrance of a Pulitzer Prize- winning Jewish New York Times writer named Samuel 'Sammy' Fried. Fried finds Brennan's writing and newspaper impressive. Brennan, trying to consider Reyburn's painful childhood, argues that there are two sides to every story. At the same time, married father Sam shows John a photo of his children, asserting that a released Bobby would annihilate them as Jews.

Graham's drama, if not a breakthrough work, is remarkably balanced and thoughtful. The hunter of the play's title may be a predatory drug dealer to Brennan and a Hitler-admiring neo-Nazi to Fried. Theatergoers, in talking about Hub associate artistic director Daniel Bourque's tautly paced and directed production, may find their own views as diverse about murder, vigilante action, capital punishment and religion as those of the very different characters in the play itself. Look for two strong company debuts in the roles of the inmates. Mark Krawczyk has the right combination of volatility and discontent as Brennan. Cameron Beaty Gosselin captures Reyburn's curious naiveté and cluelessness as well as his lethal hate. Krawczyk wisely understates Brennan's impatience with Reyburn's blind adherence to white supremacist doctrine. Krawczyk and Gosselin make the evolution of their interaction as cell neighbors telling and persuasive.

Robert Orzalli catches Fried's feeling and understanding as the well-intentioned journalist determined to supply positive insight through his interviewing with Brennan. The role of Fried could easily devolve into a liberal caricature with some actors, but Orzali catches his humanity as well as his professional rigor. Regine Vital has Shawna's no-nonsense tenacity with the inmates and her unassuming manner when she addresses the audience. Set designer Megan Kineen and properties master Gabriel Graetz establish the contrast between the inmates in the appointments of the cells-- Brennan's photo and article decorated and Reyburn's unsurprisingly spare. Jeremy Stein's sharp lighting vividly evokes Reyburn's fiery crime in back story and mirrors the darkening fortunes of the inmates.

Graham's play may not be quite as stunning as Miguel Pinero's haunting prison gem "Short Eyes," but Hub Theatre Company is giving rich expression to the howling humanity of "Coyote on the Fence."




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