"Don't fence me in" is far more than a dusty cowboy cliché in Michael Brainard's intense new drama, A Murder of Crows. A middle-aged university professor (Brian Kojac) and his young wife (Enci Takacs) move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, circa 1935, in hopes of forging a new life together. But they find themselves more isolated than ever as social boundaries and prejudices prove far more restrictive than barbed wire and wooden fences. Not until a young newspaper reporter (Brandon Puleio) and an old drifter (Spider Madison) wander into their stifled lives do they have a chance to be set free.
This is a character-driven drama, and Brainard, who also directs, does a fine job of fleshing out his characters' drives and secrets. Everyone has a hidden agenda and a reason for staying put in or leaving Santa Fe. It's a shared sense of purpose that emphasizes each character's feelings of suffocation and isolation.
Propelling the story is the hyperintense, neurotic professor Ed Burris, a man who coaxes, manipulates and treats others like students in an invisible classroom. But the master manipulator and instructor who vibrates with the most understanding about life and people is the drifter Rufus Finely, artfully played by Madison.
Brainard's story feels timeless, but the pre-World War II period adds resonance to his theme of expansion and contraction. The rugged desert setting also provides an antagonism of its own. The vast openness of the land hints at sanctuary but is, in reality, a vacuous space filled with contradictions.
Brainard directs with a sense of pacing that builds to a vigorous confrontation. Along the way, his sharp dialogue, spiked with humor and the occasional profundity, keeps the viewer engaged.
Concluding on an ironic and poignant note, the play ultimately shows us that the fences we create in our own minds are what we most need to tear down in order to connect with others. The fact that the trite metaphor is handled with such aplomb and intensity in a new play is a credit to the playwright.
A Murder of Crows at Stages Entertainment Group, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Fri.-Sun. In repertory with Dead Reckoning, so show dates and times vary. Call first. Through Nov. 25. $14.