Colonial Players’ Coyote on a Fence
Many theater companies are neither willing nor able to move from a bubbly musical directly into a disturbing death-row drama based on real life. Colonial Players is the exception, following November’s Annie with Coyote on a Fence.
Coyote on a Fence is what Colonial calls an “arc” show, more challenging than usual and typically appealing to a smaller arc of patrons. Opening night proved that this production is deserving of larger, not smaller, audiences.
Bruce Graham’s play focuses on long-time death row inmate John Brennan, the middle-aged editor of the prison newspaper who writes obituaries of each inmate put to death. Brennan is a fervent but deluded believer in his own innocence. Most on death row say they, too, are innocent.
Except Bobby Reyburn. A late-20s, anti-Semite racist who gets the cell next to Brennan after burning down an African American church and killing 37 people, Reyburn says he was called to his work by God and was spoon-fed hate by a trusted uncle.
The interplay between Bobby, who welcomes his execution, and John, who has exhausted every legal avenue on the way to his, demands two actors who not only commit to their characters but are consistent in their interpretations even as their characters hit sharply emotional highs and lows. Thom Sinn as John and Eddie Hall as Bobby meet that demand. A lesser actor might have allowed the histrionic Bobby to become a caricature, but Hall, under the capable direction of Colonial veteran Edd Miller, never does so. He and Sinn together take the audience on a journey that makes us care about them despite their violent pasts.
Prison guard Shawna (an earthy Kecia Campbell) keeps a close eye on things. But outside the prison, she meets an unseen reporter in a series of monologues. Among her topics are how she feels safer on the inside among convicted killers than in the real world. Shawna’s final monologue is a heartbreaker.
Another reporter works his way into Brennan’s confidence. Nicely underplayed by Jeff Sprague, Sam Fried’s condescension and conflict over the death penalty are no match for Brennan’s passion.
Miller is one of the few directors who successfully uses Colonial’s in-the-round space. His set design puts all the action on the floor in front of us, avoiding the annoying neck craning too often required to watch scenes in the theater’s corners. The two cells abut, with an outside recreation area marked by a stark wire fence and a small area representing Shawna’s bar.
Adding to the stark aura is Carl Andreasen’s and Theresa Riffle’s haunting sound design, a near-constant drone of background voices occasionally interrupted by the scream of an inmate or the physical shock and loud finality of a metal prison door trapping us all.
Frank Florentine’s tight lighting evokes the sterility of the place, from harsh lights dimming upon an execution to the eerie green illuminating the empty cell of the newly executed.
Coyote is the 14th show Miller has directed at Colonial. His Going to St. Ives was awarded best play and best director in the coveted Washington Area Theater Community Awards in 2012. Coyote on a Fence is likely to attract the same consideration.
Warning: Save the pre-show cocktails for post. The play runs one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission.