Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Coyote on A Fence"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Larry Stark

"Coyote on A Fence"

by Bruce Graham
Directed by Nancy Curran Willis

Scenic Design by Ruth Neeman
Costume Design by Molly Trainer
Lighting design by Deb Sullivan
Sound Design by Peter Boynton
Production Dramaturg Bridget Frey
Production Stage Manager Amy Lee

Shawna DuChamps.....Bobbie Steinbach
John Brennan............Fred Robbins
Bobby Rayburn.........Barlow Adamson
Sam Fried.........Peter Papadopoulos

"This is turning into a great year for tough, hard-hitting theater," I said last week, and it's still true. Less than a week after The New Rep opened what has been called "The 'No" Play" Boston Theatre Works opened "Coyote on A Fence" --- a compressed, eloquent study of life on Death Row. The play is, in essence, an epitaph for a writer of epitaphs who stubbornly fights not for his own life, but for the proudly confessed racist militant church-burner in the next cell who is as different from him as possible. They are running out of appeals as the intense silence in "cell-block yammer" again and again interrupts his work on his letters and newspaper, and this fighter laconically growls "They killed another one of us tonight."

The play begins not in the side-by-side cells (with an observation-walk-way above and behind them) designed by Ruth Neeman, but at a bar-table off stage-right. There Bobbie Steinbach plays an in-your-face uniformed guard, making the audience into a faceless reporter plying her with good whiskey and a plate of wings to learn a little about life inside the walls. "Ya can't use my name or I'll sue your butt!" she insists in a snappy "Sothron" accent. "I'm safer in there with the murderers than I'd be workin' out here. That's ... what's that damn word ... Ironic! isn't it?" It's just a job, she insists. "About them? I don't know, and I don't care! You know what it means to me when one of 'em dies? Thirty-eight fifty in overtime! That may not mean much to you, but it's a good steak dinner for me, and that's all it is, period."

When Deb Sullivan's fluid light-plot moves the action inside, it discovers a greying Fred Robbins reading the letter to his daughter he's writing on an old portable typewriter with no ribbon --- using carbon-paper instead. The "Death Row Times" this man publishes was the subject of a BBC documentary, but when it aired in America the things he said got computer-privileges revoked. His brooding comments are lit with irony and gallows-humor that do not change, though the grim reality of the situation changes the way they are felt as time goes on.

At far stage-left is a visitors' room where young Peter Papadopoulos is finally granted a few interviews as a New York TIMES feature-writer who is the only real link to the outside world, both as a curious onlooker and a way of getting information about things Outside. But he, like every one of these carefully researched characters, has his own motives and reservations deciding his actions.

When the empty cell onstage is finally filled, it is by tall, shaven-headed Barlow Adamson --- proud of his record stay of years in solitary, eager to die for a mass-burning he swears God told him to commit, and loudly cursing the Jews, Niggers and Mud-People his beloved Aryan uncle taught him to detest. He is a perfect example of ignorance in action, eager to compose a letter complaining about prison food ("It sucks!") for the newspaper before his execution, and eager as a puppy to be listened to by the only person who'll talk to him --- a person who disagrees with every hate-filled word out of his mouth.

The play is a slow, no-compromise erosion of distrust and enmity in this pair, the subtext for which is the intellectual's search for the one shred of positive truth that will give this hate-obsessed madman's obituary a little dignity when the cell-block goes silent because "They killed another one of us tonight."


"Coyote on A Fence" (28 February - 23 March)
Tremont Theatre, 276 Tremont St., Boston, MA
(617) 728-4321

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide