Death Penalty's Prism

The Curious Theatre Company's Coyote on a Fence is an artful, high-minded attempt to address the issue of the death penalty.

As I watched the play last Saturday, at the end of a week filled with fear and confusion, sodden with grief, it was comforting to be in a place filled with people concerned about issues of public policy. Henry Lowenstein sat at the end of my row. When he ran BoBan's Cabaret in the '80s, Lowenstein, a Holocaust survivor, sought out previously unknown actors, writers and directors, often in Denver's minority communities. Many of his productions dealt with such serious topics as apartheid and poverty; they were, nonetheless, often filled with affirmation and joy. There was a gospel singer in one of them whose remembered voice still quickens my breath. At the time, I wanted her to sing and sing and never stop singing.

While there is much feeling in Coyote on a Fence, on the whole the play distances us from its protagonists, working more at the level of intellect than of emotion. At first this struck me as problematic. Coyote doesn't have the impact of tragedy; it doesn't provide the sorrow, the shock, the moment of catharsis. We don't shudder in anticipation as one of the convicts approaches his death date; we don't weep when we realize he's died. But on later reflection, this seemed more a strength than a weakness. This is not a play that cheapens or exploits its material. Besides, we brought to it minds already over-excited by the events of the week: the deaths, the calls for an apocalyptic war against evil, the media mixture of genuine emotion and sentimentality, the loss of all sense of the world as a safe and compassionate place. We didn't need more emotion. We needed context. We needed to think. We needed a way to contemplate ultimate questions.

Because of all this, I saw the play as if someone had slipped a transparency over a map, darkening known territory, illuminating areas that had been in shadow. I expected to confront the usual questions about the death penalty: Does it deter crime? Does it comfort the victims' families? Is it cost-effective? Is it equally enforced, or are minority people and the poor executed in disproportionate numbers? How often are innocent people put to death, and how much does the public care? As a society, should we be more committed to revenge or to forgiveness? These questions arose, particularly in the attorney-led discussion after the performance. But I think most of us also found ourselves contemplating something deeper and almost inexpressible, something that touched on what it means to be human.

The set for Coyote on a Fence is a series of boxes. Two condemned men, John Brennan (Terry Burnsed) and Bobby Reyburn (Gene Gillette), occupy side-by-side cells. Above them is the meshed yard where they're allowed an hour's recreation a day; they're still fenced off from each other, but a ball can fly over the fence that divides them. A small square on the stage's upper level represents a bar where prison guard Shawna DuChamps (Judy Phelan-Hill) -- who gets $34 every time she volunteers for execution duty -- submits to a media interview, pieces of which are shown throughout the play. Opposite this, in a second raised square, a New York Times reporter (Chris Reid) conducts occasional interviews with Brennan. The reporter has heard of him through a death-row newspaper the inmate edits that features the obituaries of those executed. The central action of the play is simplicity itself: Like all of us, Brennan and Reyburn wait for death; in their case, however, the dates have been set and the deaths will be deliberately administered.

Brennan is an educated man, a onetime psychologist, sentenced to death for the murder of a drug dealer. He says that he's innocent. He brings a withering clarity to prison life, its cruelties and evasions. Reyburn is a member of the Aryan Nations, babbling endlessly about mud people and the Jewish cabal that runs the country. His crime was to block the door of a black church with his truck and then set fire to the building, murdering 37 people, many of them children. Police found him sitting outside with his gasoline can, watching the flames.

Despite his loathing for Reyburn's crime, Brennan finds himself coming to care for the man himself, who's emotionally a puppyish four-year-old and possessed of a blank and terrible innocence. He learns that Reyburn endured all the childhood sufferings with which the press has made us so drearily familiar: Born with fetal-alcohol poisoning to a fifteen-year-old mother, beaten and abused, institutionalized and raped within the institution, Reyburn eventually found love and complete acceptance in the Aryan Nations.

Reyburn wants to contribute something to Brennan's newspaper, and Brennan tries to teach him coherence, lecturing like an English teacher about thesis and supporting arguments. But even as he tries to wean Reyburn from the lies that both nourished and devastated him, Brennan himself struggles with truth. His obituaries skirt or minimize their subjects' crimes; his rationale is that these inmates' deaths should be recorded somewhere with acceptance and without blame. Filled with rage at the institution of capital punishment, determined ultimately to cheat the executioner, Brennan can't look at the evil in himself, or in the men he has come to identify with and care about.

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.

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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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman