Capital punishment: yes or no? It's a hot issue that's not likely to cool down soon. But one important consideration is often missing from all the fiery dialogue, notes local director Chip Walton of the Curious Theatre Company: the human element.
Dead man walking: Gene Gillette in Coyote on a Fence.
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"It's easy on either side to forget that you're talking about real people," Walton says, and that's the focus of Saturday's debut of the troupe's season opener, a regional premiere of Bruce Graham's award-winning Coyote on a Fence. In the play, which is set on death row, Graham forces his audience to face the visceral subject of capital punishment from two highly personal points of view: that of refined activist/intellectual John Brennan and that of white-trash supremacist Bobby Alvin Reyburn, both prisoners awaiting execution. Based partially in fact -- Brennan's character is drawn in part from letters exchanged by the playwright and Texas inmate James Beathard, who's published a newspaper with obits for fellow death-row denizens -- the play doesn't presume to make up anyone's mind for them. Instead, says Walton, audiences are challenged by "the question that it asks but doesn't answer: If you really knew a person on death row, how would that change how you felt about the death penalty?"
To prepare themselves to probe the issue, Walton, cast and crew gained permission to tour Colorado's only level-five death-row facility, in Cañon City. For a group of actors accustomed to finding something within themselves to spark their characterizations, the trip was essential, as no one in the company had any kind of prison experience to draw from.
"I had this stereotype of prisons in my mind that was like the Sing Sing version of a prison: dark and dirty and medieval," Walton says. "But it's not like that at all. Instead, it's incredibly clean, and there are hardly any bars. You can see your reflection in the floor. They also gave us the opportunity to go into an uninhabited cell. It was so small. At least bars would give you some sort of contact with the outside, but this was all steel doors and tiny Plexiglas windows."
Most effective was the group's visit to the death suite.
"You walk in, and there are three doors," he recalls. "The door to the right opens into the holding cell, where the prisoner spends time before the execution. The middle door is the door to the lethal-injection chamber. It was so impersonal. If the gurney wasn't in there, it could have been an office or a closet rather than a death chamber."
The last door on the left, he adds, opens into the viewing room, which doubled as a conference room in which the Curious Theatre members sat down for a chat about prison life with Department of Corrections staff. Walton found that exchange both informative and chilling. "It suddenly dawned on me while we were in there: 'Oh, my God. We are in the execution witness room having this conversation.'"
As a director, Walton has tried to convey the strange complexity of that feeling, as well as the issues behind it. "The irony of it is that since that time, everywhere I go, I hear something about capital punishment." In order to address the whys and wherefores of the subject, Timothy McVeigh defense attorney Robert Nigh and Colorado Public Defender's Office director David Kaplan will appear as special guest speakers on the play's opening night; on October 11, a panel will discuss capital punishment in Colorado.
In keeping with Curious Theatre Company's general goal of encouraging cultural conversations, Walton says, "We're not out to change minds, but sometimes people get so set in their ways. I hope that when audiences walk out the door after this show, they'll at least have re-examined their beliefs."