Just because it’s too late to see a particular play or production doesn’t mean it should miss out on being mentioned or praised.
I came to OnStage Playhouse’s “COYOTE ON A FENCE” late in the run; the season has been just too hectic. But I’m really glad I got there. Bruce Graham’s drama (coupled with some fascinating lobby information and details) taught me quite a bit about Death Row (e.g., not fighting the system via appeals represents a setback for all the inmates).
The piece is set in the Alabama State Penitentiary. You get ‘wanded’ before you’re allowed to take your seat. The perfectly claustrophobic set (Chad Oakley, who also designed the effective lighting) presents two cramped cells and two narrow, adjacent exercise areas, separated by chainlink topped with barbed wire. There are two other playing spaces, most notably a bar table, where a seen-it-all corrections officer, Shawna Duchamps, wonderfully played by Holly Stephenson, gets progressively drunk on the beers provided to her by the unseen journalist who’s interviewing her after each execution.
For 30 years, she’s subscribed to the “I don’t see and I don’t care” philosophy on the job. But these last few have really gotten to her. She’s cleaning out one cell, gathering up the meager personal items, when we first see her. And then we meet the two diametrically opposed cell neighbors: first, John Brennan – smart, taciturn and educated, who doesn’t have much faith, but in writing the obits for the prison newsletter, thinks every inmate deserves a little dignity (even if he has to gloss over some of the gory details of their crimes). He’s just lost the only prisoner he’s allowed himself to befriend.
And in comes Bobby Reyburn – racist, anti-Semitic, a barely literate proud Aryan who insists that God told him to do what he did (set fire to an African American church with 37 people inside – including 14 children). The play was written in 1997, but it resonates deeply with the recent events in Charleston, where a young white man shot nine African Americans during a prayer service in Charleston, SC.
Bobby is a hyperkinetic chatterbox. The way the two interact is a wondrous thing to see, as expertly directed by James P. Darvas. Larry E Fox is impeccable as John, calm and unflappable – until he gets angry and violent (Shawna keeps him in check). Shane Ruddick Allen, with his wide-eyed baby face, is spectacular at Bobby. He looks so young (he’s a 24 year old recent SDSU grad) and is so frighteningly believable in his ingenuous stories of an awful childhood and his fierce, unswerving commitment to evildoing in the name of God. As John puts it, “The only person who ever loved him taught him how to hate.”
There’s one more character (in addition to the stone-faced prison guard, chillingly and silently played by Nicole White): a New York Times reporter (Salomon Maya) who’s a stand-in for the playwright. Graham actually did correspond with a death row inmate, but unlike his fictional Samuel Fried, he never scored a face-to-face meeting. Surprisingly, Sam is the least-defined character, though like all Graham’s creations here, he seems to be multi-faceted. “Every story has two sides” is the mantra of the play. And it forces us to keep that in mind, as we consider nature, nurture, capital punishment and incarceration, the nature of evil and the potential for rehabilitation. There was a wall in the lobby that allowed patrons to express their feelings about the death
penalty after seeing the show.
Now, one more must-mention: “THE ACQUITTAL,” by 16 year-old Emily Midgley, one of the winners of the 2015 California Young Playwrights Contest. Her play was one of four presented by Playwrights Project at The Old Globe, in their 31st year of producing Plays by Young Writers.
The imaginative and talented Midgley is a junior at The Bishop’s School. She created an unnerving dystopia, a futuristic society where mind and body control rule. It was skillfully staged by George Yé, with an excellent cast headed by Andrew Moore.
This was by far the most fully realized, most provocative and most adult of this year’s submissions – and it deserves a future.
The moral here: When new plays come around – or unfamiliar ones – grab the opportunity while you can. Dramatic delights may pop up where you least expect them.