Shipping Dock Theatre is back in strong form with a disturbing, haunting drama about prison life: Bruce Graham's Coyote on a Fence. In a straightforward, potent performance, a small cast holds the audience spellbound with material that is neither pleasant nor ennobling but is certainly thought-provoking and very hard to forget.
Playwright Graham doesn't really take sides. He creates two complex main characters. One is a stubbornly intellectual, self-involved convict who plays advocate for other inmates but is defensively uninformative about his own crimes. The second is a younger, horrible mass-murderer and bigot who revels in detailing his offenses but is pathetically needy and grateful for any kindness.
The interaction of these two death-row inmates provides shifting insights into the nature of violence and social retribution. And two views of them --- by an outsider who writes for the New York Times and a prison guard who tries not to care about what she observes --- complicate our understanding of crime and punishment.
We first meet John Brennan in his cell, typing a letter to his estranged wife about his prison newsletter and writing obituaries for executed convicts. He seems upset about the immediate loss of the convict from the adjacent cell, mostly because --- not without self-interest --- Brennan opposes execution as murder.
When Bobby Reyburn is moved into the neighboring cell, Brennan warily tries to ignore him, especially when Reyburn makes clear that he believes that God wants Jews, blacks, and other "predators" to be destroyed. Brennan later argues with Reyburn over the boy's belief that because God instructed him to murder, he should not fight his death sentence, which will lead him to heaven.
Sam Fried, the Jewish reporter who interviews Brennan about his newsletter, also opposes the death penalty but believes that Brennan whitewashes his fellow killers' crimes. Fried has no sympathy for the psychotic young Reyburn. He says that Reyburn would happily slaughter Fried's children if given the chance.
All these ugly contradictions play out in surprisingly entertaining and sympathetic scenes. John Brennan's rigid attitudes are often expressed with biting but amusing wit. Bobby Reyburn's beliefs are scarily off-putting when presented in uneducated, happily convinced statements that betray his boyish charm.
Sam Fried is convincingly decent in his impulses and logical in his reasoning for his unfeeling condemnation of these men. And officer Shawna DuChamps is hurt by the notion that she is anything but a decent, ordinary person who has to hold in check her sympathetic impulses toward her dangerous charges.
Barbara K. Biddy's direction keeps these elements in balanced control, never permitting the play to seem didactic, but also never allowing us a minute of indifference. P. Gibson Ralph's suggestive prison set (with a bar scene for Shawna) is a model of simple clarity and varied acting spaces. The uncredited lighting design and sound design (a series of intimidating prison sounds) lend strong support.
In the best-judged, most authoritative performance I've seen him give, Shipping Dock regular Jerry Jones is never less than believable and gripping as Brennan. David Woodworth's Fried is persuasive in his opposing views. Kerry Young makes Shawna dryly amusing and very real.
Newcomer Joshua Rice is quite remarkable as Reyburn. He will have to adjust to the Visual Studies Workshop's difficult, localized acoustics to better project his climactic speech that explains the "Coyote on a Fence" image. But Rice brings startling charisma and vulnerability to the character without letting us forget what a monster he can be.
Graham's script could be more tightly structured at the end. Its most telling moment comes with Brennan's reading from his obituary of Reyburn: "Bobby Reyburn knew no charity or wisdom or peace in his life. And the only person who ever loved him taught him how to hate." Whether that sends chills down your spine or not, any subsequent lines would seem to be a waste.
Coyote on a Fence,by Bruce Graham, directed by Barbara K. Biddy, plays at Shipping Dock Theatre Center, Visual Studies Auditorium, 31 Prince Street, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., through February 28. Tickets: $12 to $22. 232-2250, www.shippingdocktheatre.org