(Reviewed by Carrie Humphrey & Lynda Giddings)
Photos by Glen Morgan

January18 – March 8, 2002, COYOTE ON A FENCE opened at the Alliance Repertory Company in Burbank, California. It is the West Coast Premiere. James Morrison played the part of John Brennan from January 18 – February 15. Peter Fox directed the play.

An intimate theater is classified as one seating fewer than one hundred. At just fewer than fifty seats, the Alliance Repertory Theater in Burbank, California definitely qualifies. For Bruce Graham's Coyote on a Fence, the intimacy is used to great effect. The audience sits on single raised platforms, one on each side of the approximately twelve by fifty foot stage, giving the feeling of being on a prison catwalk, as they watch the action take place beneath their feet. The simple set effectively evokes in turn an exercise yard, a pair of adjoining prison cells, a visitor's room and a bar, using lighting to illuminate one portion of the stage, and casting the rest in shadow. In this stark setting, the audience becomes more than mere observers, as they are drawn in by both the characters and the power of the play.

Coyote1.jpg (85145 bytes)On the surface, Coyote on a Fence could be seen as a simple exercise, inviting the audience to ponder the morality of capital punishment. Is it right or wrong to put another human being to death, regardless of his crimes? And if we had the chance to really get to know the inmates on death row, would we be so quick to condemn them? However, it would be a disservice to the play to look no deeper than this basic outer layer.

What is the true nature of evil, what does it look like, where does it come from? These are the questions the play forces us to ask ourselves, as we come to understand these men on a more personal level.

John Brennan (James Morrison) is an educated, articulate man who has been convicted of kicking a drug dealer to death. John plays chess by mail, and writes a prison newspaper called the "Death Row Advocate." He has taken it upon himself to write sanitized obituaries for the men who are put to death for their crimes. It is his hope that he can find some good in the men society has judged as monsters; he's determined not to let "the last thing said about the men in here be ugly."

With the execution of one cell partner ("We use the term cell 'partner'" Brennan quips. "'Mate' has certain connotations."), Brennan acquires another in the form of one Bobby Reyburn (Joe Mellis). Reyburn is at once a childlike innocent relating homespun country stories, and a brutal, racist murderer spouting Aryan rhetoric and propaganda by rote. According to society's more liberal factions, Bobby has all the usual justifications for his crimes - he was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, he was abused and neglected by his teenage prostitute mother to the point of brain damage, institutionalized and raped so brutally that he has a permanent hip deformity. The only person who ever loved him was an uncle who introduced him into the Aryan way of life; a life that brought Bobby an acceptance and sense of belonging he’d never known before. And it is through this acceptance and sense of belonging, that he has come to believe in the teachings of the Aryan cause. He makes no excuses for his actions, and calmly waits to die, convinced that he will go to a better place for doing God's work. Such is the insidiousness of true evil, preying on the innocence of its victims in the guise of something good.

So it begs the questions, can Bobby Reyburn be held accountable for the crime of burning down a black church and killing thirty-seven people, many of them children? Is he truly evil or is he an innocent drawn in by evil?

Coyote2.jpg (113296 bytes)Over time and a series of charged encounters, John Brennan reluctantly begins to like Reyburn for his gentle humor and puppyish naiveté, completely disassociated from his crimes. As Brennan comes to care about Bobby, he becomes increasingly frustrated by Bobby's lack of concern over his sentence. He has refused to cooperate with his attorney and appears to be patiently awaiting a fate he feels he deserves, as a martyr to his cause. Brennan rails against this passivity, attempting to convince Reyburn to appeal his conviction out of fear of his own pending execution, and because every death "makes it easier to kill the rest of us." As he eventually uncovers the details of Bobby's miserable life, Brennan comes to realize that he is insane, and labors to get the younger man's sentence commuted to life.

Sam Fried (Jesse Levy) is a New York journalist who comes across Brennan's newspaper and is compelled to set up a series of visits with the condemned man. Fried sees the monstrous side to the death row inmates, and challenges Brennan to justify the almost saintly epitaphs he writes. But as John says, "There are definitely two sides to every story . . . And in order to get to the truth, you sometimes have to . . . blend the two." Knowing the views the outside world holds, Brennan takes it upon himself to provide the other side.

Shawna DuChamps (Livia Trevino) rounds out the excellent cast as a cynical yet basically good-hearted prison guard who numbs her sensibilities at a local bar, and who provides Brennan with the executed prisoners' final words.

John Brennan is a man who cannot come to terms with his own guilt, a man who is in denial. He hunts for the good in other criminals, perhaps to prove that he himself is not all bad. In his relentless drive to undemonize the men he writes about, is he trying to distance himself from the reality of his own execution? Has he convinced himself that he is only an observer, a recorder, a historian?

Ironically, it is Bobby Reyburn who brings a measure of acceptance to Brennan by relating a story, which explains the coyote of the play's title. It is the simple-minded Reyburn who cuts to the heart of Brennan's dilemma by urging him to admit to his crime without feeling guilty about it. He entreats Brennan to find peace and to find God, as he likens the drug dealer to a predator who deserved to die.

James Morrison brings a caged, restless energy to the role of Brennan. He paces the confines of his cell, rarely still for a moment; imprinting the character with his own style; effortlessly incorporating yoga positions into his everyday routine, as he assumes a half lotus on his bunk, an eagle while sitting at his desk, and a supported headstand in the exercise yard; he even gets to sing a few bars of "Jingle Bells." Morrison radiates the intelligence and arrogant intensity of an educated man who's afraid to admit to his own weaknesses and doubts; a cynical, self-righteous man railing against the inevitable.

Joe Mellis also shines as Bobby Reyburn, never missing a beat as he goes from bewildered innocent one moment, to raging fanatic the next. His shuffling gait and dragging leg are convincing proof that he must indeed have a damaged hip. Yet one look at him after the performance reveals that he does not.

The intimacy of the setting adds to the power and immediacy of the play, drawing the audience directly into the action as though they were a part of it. Filled with humor and violence, profanity and philosophy, the play is not always an easy one to watch. While it asks difficult questions about the death penalty, and good vs. evil, it provides no easy answers, leaving the viewer to rethink or justify his or her opinions on both. Regardless of your views, this play will stay with you long after you have left the theater.

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