Cheltenham Everyman Studio
“I will not let the last thing that’s said about the men in here be ugly!”
Bruce Graham’s play Coyote On A Fence, presented by MPG Theatre, explores the highly controversial moral issues surrounding the treatment of those that live on death row.
Inspired by the true story of James Beathard, a convicted killer and editor of the Texas Death Row Journal, Coyote On A Fence is about the lives of two prisoners, John Brennan and Robert Alvin “Bobby” Reyburn, played by Murray Andrews and Michael Greenman, as well as Shawna, a female prison guard, and Sam, an editor at the New York Times, performed by Elise Heaven and Xander Black.
The character John Brennan spends the time he is serving ahead of capital punishment writing obituaries for the prison tabloid that he also edits, the Death Row Advocate. Described as an educated and arrogant man, his background shrouded in mystery, Brennan’s character is a brilliant contrast to his new cell “partner” Bobby Reyburn (they don’t use the term “mate” as it has ‘other connotations’). Bobby is a younger man and simple-minded, a member of the Aryan nation and convicted of a horrendous crime; he has spent the previous six years and forty-four days in lock-up, where his sense of hearing has been greatly enhanced, although perhaps not his animal impressions, however much he might enjoy performing them.
Andrews’ provides a superb brooding intensity as Brennan, while Greenman’s portrayal of the simple-minded Bobby draws upon the compassion of the audience, making his eventual confession difficult to accept and that sympathetic connection potentially severed. Yet throughout the play the heavy subject matter is often lifted with humour, whether that be via Bobby’s ridiculous animal impressions or the common taste of irony…
Under the direction of Greg Banks, basic scenery divides the studio theatre space into three to four minimalistic settings; a bar, two adjacent prison cells, the prison yard, and a meeting room; each are lit for the relevant scenes. With the addition of frequent sound effects there is ample room for your imagination to complete the picture, along with the geographical setting, thanks to the strength of the southern American accents sustained by the four cast members.
Brennan’s character occupies the righthand cell and is already present on stage when the audience enters the space, bent over a typewriter and animatedly typing away – an extremely distinctive sound. On the floor of his cell are various books; political, dystopian, contentious and poetical; giving the audience an insight into the kind of man he might be. A half-finished chess game sits in the corner and photographs of a young girl are tacked to the wall, who we later learn to be his estranged daughter. The cell next door is empty, soon to be filled by the extrovert personality of Bobby.
Graham’s play is not a mystery with any unexpected twists, but built on shock factor. Perhaps that is a poor choice of words, but as the story unfolds, certain revelations might not sit comfortably with those watching…
Those who are sentenced to the death penalty are already under scrutiny, even whilst capital punishment may be a controversial topic, there are the outside observers whose curiosity is aroused by the reasons for why these people are committed to death row in the first place. Brennan writes these obituaries to give the men back their dignity after they die, finding their positive nature and not referring to their crimes, without exception. Towards the end of the play, in a heated scene between John and Sam, Brennan shouts, “I will not let the last thing that’s said about the men in here be ugly!” and yet he has to fight with himself to find a way to help Bobby not serve capital punishment. Bobby’s crime was monstrous, but the reasons for his actions may potentially be seen as innocent; the frightening question that is asked by Graham’s play is: can one be innocent though proven guilty?
Yet it is the character Shawna, the female prison guard, that gives voice to this controversy through her admission of the guilt that she feels over the death of the prisoners. Sat in the bar and talking to an invisible reporter, and unashamedly directed at the audience, about how she is only ever doing her job, but her drinking is due to being unable to escape the human connections she makes with the residents of death row. Her humanity takes a stance and she must ignore it; her questions and ranting will ring in your ears when the play comes to its inevitable ending.
Coyote On A Fence was written by Bruce Graham. This production was directed by Gregg Banks and presented by MPG Theatre at Cheltenham Everyman Studio in October 2013.