Coyote on a Fence – Undemonize the Beast
My great-great grandfather was a bank robber. A bad one. True story. Good stock. One of our favorite pieces of family lore is how my grandmother (his daughter) used to go up to the state penitentiary to visit him in the early nineteen thirties, all bedecked out in her ribbons and curls. Oh, how the guards loved her! They let her run around and fed her pieces of candy. And every time she visited, the bank robber would ask her if she was being good. One time, she sassed back “You’re one to talk! They’ve got you locked up in the pen!”. And Mr. “Always Gettin’ Caught” Billy fixed her with a steely eye, spit out his chew, and said: “Prison is just another place, girl. I’m still your father.” This family legend occurred to me more than a few times during Colonial Player’s most recent offering, Coyote on a Fence by Bruce Graham, playing as we speak. The story of John Brennan (Thom Sinn), an imprisoned yet erudite man with shades of Hannibal Lector only much less psycho. He’s the kind of guy who, when his daughter tells him she’s not coming to visit, not even for Christmas, covers his hurt by bitching about her syntax. John’s been up the mile for a long time now, almost long enough to forget that he too has an expiration date. He plays chess by mail with his wife and signs his letters “peace” and is relatively calm in the coop until he gets a new neighbor in the next cell down. This would be “backward racist hick” Bobby Reyburn (Eddie Hall) who is kind of goofy and lovable whilst doing his impressions of penguins, less so when ranting about Aryan supremacy. Orbiting the cell block are no-nonsense and rough-around-the-edges CO Shawna DuChamps (Kecia A. Campbell) whose interview sessions guide us along (though there is a shot-through-the-heart twist at the end) and Sam Fried (Jeff Sprague) a reporter from the New York Times who is doing a story on Brennan. As with most stories set in lock-up, there isn’t much plot, no car chases or anything, but, after awhile, the characters sort of become the plot. Director Edd Miller crafts a beautifully elegant production and lets it unfold on its own terms-and papa don’t preach, about the death penalty or anything else. Miller, crucially, just lets it breathe. He’s aided in this respect by great technical design. The cunning set, also by Miller, manages to be both open and claustrophobic at the same time with cell bars broken off at different heights to suggest a fence, which is quite beautiful, really. I also especially liked the Light and Sound Design (Frank Florentine and Carl Andreasen/Theresa Riffle, respecively). The faux florescent banks that dim when…well…you know… were eerie as fuck and the distant-yet-persistant cell block cacophony, heightened by deafening clangs of the heavy bars slamming shut at pointed moments, were perfect. And now the actors, which I’m going to take one at a time so I can brag on them all. Campbell is absolutely flawless. Her Shawna DuChamps can spin from touching and girlish with the reporter to electric fury while screaming at that supremacist asshole to shut the fuck up already to deep sadness about the necessary blood on her hands. Jeff Sprague, in kind of a thankless Mary Sue role (the story is based on a real one, with writer Bruce Graham the reporter), makes it work with the right kind of almost-a-dick New York Times name-dropping bravado and wrinkled sport jacket (a perfect touch by Costume Designer Beth Terranova). Sinn’s Brennan has the round tones of a post-Higgins Eliza Dolittle and, as you watch, you realize that this is a man who is wearing his education, at first like a shield and then like a wall, to shut out the horror of his situation. Sinn is explosively spectacular in this role. You can see a whole world of weariness, rage and remorse in his eyes. This is a fucking masterful performance, even for a veteran actor like Thom Sinn, for whom I had extremely high expectations. Hall’s Reyburn might initially seem a bit broad if you haven’t been raised in the coastal towns of Southern Maryland, but if you have (Well, hi, there, y’all!) you’d know it is right on the money. I thought Hall was absolutely breathtaking. In a role that could have so easily gone out of control, he maintains perfect precision and pitch and man, do you believe it. Watching him, I thought about that old adage: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Except it wasn’t the grace of God, not in Bobby Reyburn’s case. It was the hand of the Devil. A hand that was held out to him in the form of a beloved uncle, the only one who ever loved him, the one who planted the seed that grew into death for 37 people. A friendship of sorts begins to form between these two men – two lonely souls who our rational selves insist don’t deserve even that comfort. But our hearts disagree. Oh, our stupid, stupid fucking hearts. They insist on feeling sorry for that which our big brains dismiss. Our hearts empathize with what our minds recoil from. The human in me reaches for the human in you and that is troubling when you are mostly a monster. But, then, maybe prison is just another place, girl. Just another place.
Bottom line: Coyote on a Fence is a seriously deep soul-howl that I’ll be hearing for a long, long, time. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck and did a dance down the entirety of my spine. I’m awed by how good every part of this was. Awed.
Running at Colonial Players until January 25th
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