Boston Theatre Works, a highly regarded small company now in its 5th season, is currently offering the Boston premiere of Bruce Graham's award-winning play Coyote on a Fence at the Tremont Theatre, now through March 23rd. This ambitious young group, with Artistic Director Jason Southerland at the helm, won Eliot Norton Awards in 2001 and 2002 for the New England premieres of Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales and The Laramie Project.
While playwright Graham doesn't have the same chops as the young Williams, Coyote on a Fence shares its prison setting (nicely rendered here by designer Ruth Neeman) and, like Laramie, the subject matter includes a horrific hate crime. But to its detriment, this long one act (clocking in at an hour and forty minutes) is overloaded with asides about capital punishment (both for and against), the conjecture that it's the breakdown of family values that fosters criminal behavior and even an attempt to pin (yet again) our thirst for violence on the irresponsibility of the media.
Would that he'd remained focused on the two death row inmates at the center of the story without all the footnotes. Graham offers us a fascinating glimpse of two opposites brought together by the proximity of their prison cells and the fundamental need to connect with somebody.
John Brennan (Fred Robbins) is a long-term resident, thanks to his effective use of the legal system. Now middle-aged, he bides his time playing chess by mail, writing to his lady friend and composing obituaries for "The Prison Advocate." His journalism activities attract the attention of reporters from the BBC and New York Times and raise the hackles of prison officials who retaliate by revoking his computer privileges. Undaunted, he carries on his campaign for penal system reform and his own stay of execution with the ingenious use of a typewriter with no ribbon. Well-educated and articulate, Brennan is of the liberal persuasion.
The new kid on the block is Bobby Reyburn (Barlow Adamson), a young man with nasty tattoos and an I.Q. that's about half of Brennan's. His hobbies run more along the lines of cute animal imitations and writing letters to the editor to complain that the food "sucks." Bobby is a practicing white supremacist.
What engages Brennan is his attempt to get Bobby to also use the legal avenues open to him to postpone his own execution as long as possible. John advocates this relentless pursuit in the belief that putting off any and all executions helps advance the campaign to eliminate the death penalty. Bobby, on the other hand, is ready to meet his maker and looks forward to being reunited in heaven with the uncle who initiated him into the beliefs he holds so fiercely.
My quibbles with the execution of this production are few. Nancy Curran Willis' direction is tight. She gets finally nuanced, highly individualized performances from Robbins and Adamson. And she makes the best possible use of the other two characters (a career death row prison guard in the capable hands of comic actress Bobbie Steinbach and the reporter who takes an interest in Brennan's newspaper slickly played by Peter Papadopoulos).
Willis also makes excellent use of the environment of sound provided by designer Peter Boynton, although it could use some modulation so we hear Robbins comfortably against the background of prison noise. And I did wonder why Robbins doesn't have a Southern accent, given the setting and the fact that he refers to himself as a native.
Graham's writing could benefit from the same advice Brennan offers Bobby to help him improve his letter to the editor: state your thesis, choose the supporting arguments carefully and use words precisely. Bobby is occasionally too articulate for his limited vocabulary and comprehension, and Brennan has to condone a really stupid joke about "killer hamburgers."
The most compelling germ of an idea is contained in Brennan's practice of summing up a person's life by recounting the small details rather than the headline catching events in the obituaries he writes. There is something interesting there that gets lost in all the other "noise." And the fact that the ending catches us by surprise is another indication that the play doesn't quite land where it seems to be going.
Coyote on a Fence is presented by Boston Theatre Works now through March 23rd at the Tremont Theatre, 576 Tremont St., Boston (next to the Wang Theatre.) The performance schedule is Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM; Sundays at 3 PM. Tickets are available at www.bostontheatreworks.com, by calling 617.939.9939 or at the door an hour prior to performance. Tickets are priced at $25.00 for adults; $20.00 for students and seniors.