On The Fence

Difficult questions, compelling theater at the Arden.

By Cary M. Mazer

Coyote on a Fence

Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St., through March 7, 215-922-1122

Before I argue that Bruce Graham's new play, Coyote on a Fence, fails to answer, or only equivocally answers, the compelling questions that it raises, let me say right off that it is excellent theater in every way. The play (which received its world premiere last year at the Cincinnati Playhouse and is being given its first local production at the Arden) is richly written, holds the interest over its length (under two uninterrupted hours), is strongly directed by James J. Christy, unfolds on a stunning set by D. Patrick Boylen, and features impressive performances by Pearce Bunting, William Zielinski, David Ingram and Lenny Daniels.

John Brennan (Bunting), a college-educated former drug counselor, former drug addict and convicted murderer, edits the "Death Row Advocate" from his death-row cell. A staunch opponent of the death penalty (as well he might be), he crafts eloquent and respectful obituaries as each of his fellow prisoners are executed, giving them a tiny shred of posthumous dignity.

Enter Bobby Reyburn (Zielinski), the incorrigible inmate placed in the next cell after six years in solitary. Reyburn is an unapologetic white-supremacist racist and anti-Semite, and an unrepentant murderer. That he is the product of a broken home and of unspeakable abuse is hardly an excuse for his crime; but the fact that he is brain-damaged and clearly delusional (he believes the voice of God - sounding every bit like Raymond Burr as Perry Mason - told him to commit the crime) makes him a certain candidate for an insanity plea.

Reyburn tests the limits of every other character's convictions, and our own. The no-nonsense prison guard (Daniels) has no patience for Reyburn. For New York Times reporter Sam Fried (Ingram), who has come to write about Brennan and his muckraking, Reyburn clearly exceeds the limits of his own liberal opposition to the death penalty. Brennan finds Reyburn's racism repugnant, and is already hard-pressed to imagine what he'll write for his obituary. But what really pisses Brennan off is that Reyburn has fired his lawyers and embraced his death sentence. Each prisoner on death row, Brennan believes, owes it to every other to fight like hell, clogging up the machinery of the system and delaying the day when the next doomed prisoner must take his turn on the lethal-injection gurney.

While all of the characters mull over the moral and ethical conundrums that Reyburn raises, the playwright clearly has his own issue to raise: the nature of evil. Graham has been down this road before, in his 1988 lawyer melodrama, Minor Demons, which received its premiere under Christy's direction at the Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays. Like the juvenile murderer and sexual molester in that play, Reyburn forces us to look evil in the face, and asks us what we intend to do about it.

The moral conundrum reaches a crescendo in a long speech that finally explains the title of the play. As in Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon, this speech is spoken by an unreliable narrator, and so its didactic thrust works by opposites. When Reyburn argues that some predatory creatures might simply deserve to be killed, we know that we cannot, that we must not, agree with him, especially when we know the horrific act of racist brutality to which this philosophy led. And yet, when we stare into the face of evil, we might be tempted to think that, in this case at least, some predatory creatures might simply deserve to be killed. And the fact that Reyburn's quiet psychopathology becomes the agency of Brennan's self-knowledge confuses the issue even further.

I'm confused. But, then again, complex issues don't always have simple answers. Even the unequivocally anti-capital punishment movie, Dead Man Walking, seemed to want to have it both ways when it showed how the Sean Penn character found self-knowledge and grace from his execution. So maybe I shouldn't expect this play to make it all nice and clear and simple.

At the very least, Graham has written some characters that any actor would kill to play, and which these actors inhabit to the fullest. Zielinski is frighteningly convincing as the ignorant, backwoods racist hick. And Bunting is terrific as Brennan, capturing the intelligence, impatience, indignation and moral fervor of the character, and taking us along on the character's personal and ethical journey.

Go see Coyote on a Fence for the writing and the acting. And make up your own mind about the death penalty.