As of October 2013 the state of Maryland became the sixth state to abolish the death penalty. The state of Maryland no longer utilizes capital punishment as a sentence for prisoners found guilty of heinous crimes against humanity. This does not, however, make The Colonial Players‘ production of Coyote on a Fence any less relevant. A gripping drama that revolves around death row inmates in the southern United States, this poignant performance will plague your mind long after the actors have taken their final bows, forcing you to evaluate where you stand on the issue. Directed by Edd Miller, this is the finest dramatic production to grace the Colonial Players’ stage in years. It’s brilliantly executed with intense acting. The production left me speechless.
Sound Designer Theresa Riffle (assisted by Carl Andreasen) drives the reality and finality of the production home through her soundscape and design work. Riffle make the performance all-inclusive, starting from prison buzzer-sirens out in the lobby to herd the crowd into the theatre. The subtle background noises of fights breaking out in the cellblock (and the muted bar sounds when Officer DuChamps is in the bar) create a heady atmosphere, honing in on authentic moments of existence in these two locations. But the most striking thing about Riffle’s design work is the slamming of the prison doors; a finality so severe echoing in that one measure of sound that it’s piercing and startling.
Serving as the show’s Set Designer, Director Edd Miller creates a prison that works in the complex rectangular space. While the toilets and sink shine like brand new porcelain (perhaps a bit too clean for what the masses expect death row to look like) the cramped spacing of the cells creates a keen sense of being trapped. The bars are full length on the doors and truncated around the rest of the cell to create the illusion of being completely caged in without actually obstructing the audience’s view. Miller even finds a way to successfully include a ‘yard’ for the inmates to have outdoor exercise, without overcrowding the stage.
As the show’s Director, Edd Miller has an astute understanding of how to block a show in the round, and in this space in particular. There was a never a moment where the characters couldn’t be heard because they were facing one direction or another, and there was never a moment where the actors felt as if they were playing more to one side than another. Miller conceived a production that was self-contained; existing within itself upon the stage without ever excluding the audience. Drawing the audience into the stories of these men without letting them know it was just a play they were watching.
The acting in this performance was superior, not a person out of place. The relationships developed between the characters was superb, truth and grit connecting them in ways that seemed unlikely but was so raw and realistic that you easily believed that these men were who the characters they were portraying. The emotions ran high, the drama was intense, and the connections that formed between them kept the audience on the edge of their seats.
Sam Fried (Jeff Sprague) is the journalist from New York that becomes fascinated with the inmate’s publication: The Death Row Advocate. Sprague achieves some of his finest work in this supporting role; balancing the gravity and reality of the situation in terms plain and simple. He brings forth an equilibrium of the outside world into death row; showing the audience the outsider’s perspective just as inmate John Brennan attempts to create a perspective from the inside. Sprague’s performance is tempered with patience and objectivity, as much as is humanly possible. His interactions with the prisoner become moments of heated debate that stir up emotions most people try to ignore. Sprague’s portrayal of this driving man with convictions and opinions proves that there is more to the limited viewpoints of ‘criminal’ and ‘victim.’
Separated from the story while simultaneously being in the story is Correctional Officer Shawna DuChamps (Kecia A. Campbell). With a sassy and ferocious attitude suited toward her character’s line of work, Campbell gives an exceptional performance and finds an appropriate balance between her character’s two existences. As the officer being interviewed she is somewhat more subdued, though honest and emotionally exposed. In the prison scenes she is a force to be reckoned with, vocally intimidating and holding her own against the death row convicts. Campbell acts like a guiding force of narration, telling her side of the story which falls into the neutral zone in a similar fashion to the Sam Fried character.
John Brennan (Thom Sinn) and Bobby Reyburn (Eddie Hall) are the two inmates on death row, each being prepared for execution as the plot unfolds. The dynamic chemistry between Sinn and Hall is nothing short of explosive. At first there is little between them besides barbs and misunderstanding but an uncanny trust blossoms in their time spent together, even if Hall’s character spends the better part of his existence irritating and annoying Sinn’s character. Both Sinn and Hall are astonishing performers, exposing raw nerves of emotional depth in their characters, albeit in very different fashions.
Sinn, as the psychologically enhanced killer of one, brings an intensity to the stage that at times is both harrowing and frightening. He creates an intriguing juxtaposition of humanity in this killer; the man who is such a loose cannon when it comes to demanding justice, flushed right up against the gentle man who writes encouraging letters to someone special on the outside. Sinn’s shining moment is crafting that humanity into Hall’s character; pleading with intensity that underneath Bobby Reyburn’s racist supremacist exterior he is little more than an emotionally damaged, psychologically abused, terrified human being. Sinn’s emotional outbursts are shocking; an all round stunning performance.
Hall, as the young boy who has committed a heinous atrocity, gives an equally dynamic performance in this role. Vehemently venting on his tirade of white supremacy, Hall oscillates from this spastic out of control ill-minded youth to a simplistic, backwoods hick that can barely write his own name. There is something truly horrific and yet terribly captivating about the scene when Hall describes Bobby the day he committed his crime; you find yourself hanging on his every word in wretched disgust and desperate enchantment. There is a tender side to Hall’s performance, which tugs at your heartstrings, as you come to see that there is more to this poor ignorant youth than meets the eye.
Coyote on a Fence is a captivating drama with sensational performances. Do not miss your chance to experience this high-powered poignant production.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.