Bruce Graham’s harrowing prison drama, COYOTE ON A FENCE, is getting a stirring, in depth outing at Hub Theatre Company (through April 15th). Fringe companies of late have been stepping up their game with superior production values and admirable performances. COYOTE is a passionate example.
Director Daniel Bourque’s crisp production hits all the angles Graham intended it to, making the case for and against capital punishment without the cut and dried examples we’re familiar with… and Bourque’s rendering makes you notice the animal argument as well: Should that coyote have been tortured for poaching chickens? (I’ve seen the play before and that didn’t stay with me from last time.)
Statistics prove that the death penalty does not deter crime, it doesn’t save the state money, it executes innocents and in the case of diminished capacity (currently before the Supreme Court), it may constitute extreme cruelty… Yet the United States persists in doling out “an eye for an eye” justice (disproportionately applying the death penalty to African-American males), with Texas in the lead.
When Graham wrote COYOTE twenty years ago, he had no way of knowing that the character who murders worshipers at an African-American church would resonate so profoundly with the current white supremacist who, “to start a race war,” gunned down African-American members of a Bible study group. Relatives of the slain parishioners offered him forgiveness. Could we do the same?
Complicating matters, for me anyway, is that Cameron Gosselin even looks a little like the real killer, which kept me from viewing the argument in the abstract. I count myself politically opposed to the death penalty and yet, in the real world, I would be hard pressed to plead his case. Gosselin delivers a tour de force as the Aryan assassin who, because of his naïveté, elicits our pity, believe it or not.
In the cell next to his is an intelligent but arrogant prison-community organizer (Mark Krawczyk in a bravura performance) who advises inmates on appeals and who isn’t much interested in helping the new guy on the block. His journey is ours, thanks to Graham’s clever manipulation. The playwright even manages to slip exposition by us with the addition of a compassionate newspaper reporter (Robert Orzalli, radiating integrity). Bourque cagily suggests growing trust by gradually turning their chairs to face one another.
Regine Vital, however, dominates the play with the plum role of the tough talking guard who protests that the electrocutions she witnesses “don’t bother [me] at all.” Vital nails the unspoken vulnerability of someone whose impartiality has been pierced by humanity. It shines right through her dialogue.
Bravo, to the whole cast, especially the actors portraying the murderers. I imagine it’s a heavy burden, one I wouldn’t want on my back… or in my mouth. It isn’t an easy play to sit through, either (although there is some much appreciated humor). I guess that’s the point: if it’s hard to sit though, imagine what it’s like to live through.