We’re in an Alabama prison, where gruff guard Twila Burnett (Nicole White) makes us spread our arms while she checks for contraband before allowing us to take our seats.
OnStage Playhouse for presents “Coyote on A Fence,” Bruce Graham’s 2000 meditation on capital punishment, playing through Feb. 6 under James P. Darvas’ assured direction.
Shawna Duchamps (Holly Stephenson) presides over Guard Station D on death row. She tells us she’s a tough cookie and that “I sleep just fine,” but seems to spend an extraordinary amount of time trying to forget her depressing job by drinking in a local bar. She favors tequila with a Budweiser chaser.
Next to Shawna’s station are two side-by-side grim-looking death row cells. One has recently been vacated, and Twila removes the pictures on the wall and cleans the cell before the next inhabitant arrives.
Next to that is John Brennan’s cell, with bookshelves, photos and an old Corona typewriter without a ribbon. John (Larry E. Fox), an educated man, has spent the last 10 years on death row for stomping a drug dealer to death – a conviction he disputes.
He is a bit of an anti-death penalty activist who edits “The Death Row Advocate,” meticulously writing an obituary for each man executed.
John is still smarting from the recent execution of black murderer and friend Willie T when his new cell neighbor arrives: a young, skinny, pale racist and member of the Aryan brotherhood named Bobby Reyburn (Shane Ruddick Allen), who loudly, even proudly acknowledges that he torched an African-American church, burning all 37 members to death – including 14 children. “God told me to do it,” he says, with the simple conviction of a true believer.
After talking to him, John is almost certain Bobby is mentally challenged and could mount a winning insanity appeal, but the kid will have none of it: “I just believe that dyin’ is the right thing to do here.”
The final character is New York Times reporter Sam Fried (Salomon Maya), who shows up wanting to interview John about his literary exploits behind bars.
Fox is convincing and manages to find the humanity in Brennan, whom most of us would probably rather not know. But while John’s intellectual clarity allows him to work to change the system, it does not allow him to admit to his own apparent guilt.
Allen’s mentally challenged Bobby may or may not completely understand what he has done, but he is both childlike in his conviction and terrifying in his commitment. A graduate of SDSU’s theater program, Allen is impressive in his OnStage debut.
Stephenson’s Shawna is also impressive as the guard who tries to maintain her own humanity but finds it necessary to drown her disgust in alcohol.
The U.S. – the only developed country that still administers the death penalty as part of its legal system – needs to confront the obscenity of this form of punishment.
“Coyote On A Fence” may not be the best vehicle – Graham’s approach is dramatically clunky, with Shawn’s long, rather repetitive monologues directed to unseen hearers, John reading letters already written and Bobby’s occasionally rather poetic lines belying his apparent lack of education – leaving the cast to do the heavy lifting.
But it’s an important topic, and this group and its director are up to the task, making more of this piece than is found on the page.
Credit Darvas and OnStage artistic director Teri Brown for the brilliant co-creation of Twila’s character as a means of drawing the audience into the story – and to White for running with the idea.
In case you’re wondering, the title refers to the practice of farmers in rural areas, who frequently kill a coyote and hang the carcass on a fence to deter other coyotes from preying on farm animals.
“Coyote On A Fence” plays through February 6, 2016 at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Avenue (near F Street), Chula Vista.
Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm
Tickets: (619) 422-7787 or www.onstageplayhouse.org