BY CHRISTINE DOLEN
Crime and capital punishment are center stage in Bruce Graham's Coyote on a Fence, an engrossing drama that deliberately raises more questions than it answers
The Alliance Theatre Lab production, one of the troupe's most powerful and polished shows to date, sends its audiences back out onto Miami Lakes' Main Street pondering forever-incendiary issues: justice, vengeance, the legal system, racism and the ``why'' of horrific crimes.
Graham's play focuses on a pair of Texas death row inmates. John Brennan (an intense, engaging Travis Reiff) is an educated man who once worked at the prison as a drug and alcohol counselor. Opposed to the death penalty, adamant about his innocence, he has created a prison newspaper to push his views and humanize those who are executed.
John's new next-cell neighbor is Bobby Reyburn (Mark Della Ventura), a slow-witted, cheerful man with a ruined eye and a damaged hip. After a horrific childhood -- his mother was an alcoholic prostitute, and the hip injury came from a gang rape when he was 12 -- Bobby embraced the acceptance he found in a community of white supremacists. His crime: torching a black church with 37 people trapped inside, 14 of them children.
Feeling that justice will be served when Bobby, who spews repulsive pronouncements about blacks and Jews, keeps his date with the executioner would be easy. But Coyote on a Fence doesn't settle for easy. Both Graham's writing and Della Ventura's masterful performance keep the play from becoming a clear-cut study of guilt and innocence.
Also part of the drama are a prison guard (Kirsten Upchurch), whose drunken conversations with an unseen journalist in a bar reveal the emotional cost of maintaining her tough-gal exterior at work, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter (Jehane Serralles) who has decided to write about John and his appreciative obituaries. Both women play their parts well, but casting Serralles in a role written for a male brings a slightly creepy dimension to her initial scene with John, who asks about her marital status then wants to see a picture of her 5-year-old daughter.
Working on Mike Stopnick's set, with its lived-in cell for John and barren one for Bobby, the cast and director Adalberto Acevedo take the audience on an intense, difficult, thought-provoking journey.
Christine Dolen is The Miami Herald's theater critic.
Christine Dolen has been The Herald's theater critic since 1979. She has been a fellow at the National Critics' Institute and at Stanford University, and in 1999 was a Senior Fellow in the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. She has served as a Pulitzer Prize drama juror and has won first place in arts writing in the Missouri Lifestyles Journalism Awards
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