Death Penalty's Prism

Despite the calls for vengeance, Coyote examines the sad, soulful truth about state-sponsored executions.

The play is unsparing. Coyote withholds easy answers and is silent on redemption. As Reyburn's death draws near, you expect insight, repentance -- at the very least, primal terror -- but there is nothing. He expresses confidence in an afterlife. He spins a demented story about a special heaven set aside for black people. He wants to know what kind of obituary Brennan will give him. Throughout the play, there is a lot of interest in prisoners' last words. We listen to the discussion avidly, but these utterances are inevitably banal. People don't drop their delusions, the comforting lies they tell themselves, because death is at hand. They continue to curse, self-aggrandize or babble of glorious martyrdom, whether Christian or Islamic. Death is impenetrable, the hearts of men and women even more so, and the play doesn't pander by implying otherwise.

Near the end, the guard says that she doesn't actually watch the men she's tended dying. The press does, she adds with contempt. They lean forward intently, as if to suck in the prisoner's last breath. But she looks toward a corner of the glass where she knows she'll meet only her own reflection. At first this line struck me as heavy-handed and a bit preachy; later, it seemed perfect. We witness another's dying only through the prism of our own beliefs.

Director Chip Walton's production suits the play, and the performances are all first-rate. Phelan-Hill is tough, vulnerable and funny as the guard; Burnsed communicates the fear and compassion beneath the invulnerable persona Brennan affects; Reid turns in a strong performance as the Times reporter. Gillette is brilliant as Reyburn; in this role, he has perfect pitch -- physical, vocal and emotional. The set, designed by David Russell, accommodates the flow of action well, and Shannon McKinney's lighting is subtle and effective.

Gene Gillette is riveting as a skinhead sentenced to death in Coyote on a Fence.
Gene Gillette is riveting as a skinhead sentenced to death in Coyote on a Fence.

Details

Presented by the Curious Theatre Company
through October 27, 303-623-0524
Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street

I'd quarrel with the music that accompanies some of the men's dialogue. It's well chosen, but loud enough to be distracting, and I think Gillette's voice might have been better framed by silence.

There are a few problems with the otherwise memorable script as well. While the words are completely absorbing, there's not a lot of forward momentum, and there are very few moments of surprise.

Like the letter Brennan coaxes out of Reyburn, the play itself has a thesis. It doesn't arrive in one neat scene or sentence, but it is implicit throughout the text: Capital punishment is wrong. Not for all the practical reasons opponents usually cite. Not because hideous crimes can be excused or explained away -- even by dementia or by terrible suffering. Not on the philosophical basis that a state that kills reduces itself to the level of the killers. These may all be important arguments, but at the base is something simpler: Murderers are human, and killing human beings is wrong.

Those who oppose the death penalty face the granite and unyielding truth that evil exists. Both of the prisoners in Coyote on a Fence have qualities that could be termed redeeming, yet they have caused great suffering. And there are killers even worse, people whose minds and souls are entirely twisted and consumed with hatred. Court TV once covered the trial of a young man who belonged to a vampire cult and had bludgeoned a middle-aged couple to death. Inside everyone, there's a black dog and a white dog, this man told an interviewer. Who you become depends on which of the dogs you feed. It is hard to defend as sacrosanct the lives of those who have made an affirmative choice for evil. Especially in times like this. The words die in our throats. How we ultimately retrieve them will depend on who we are -- as individuals and as a society -- and on what we hear in the lonely music of our souls.

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