The convicted murderers who are dispensed the ultimate, irreversible punishment in Coyote on a Fence may or may not have received justice. After seeming to dissect that question—the justice of capital punishment—for more than one and a half hours, it turns out that's not what Bruce Graham's award-winning play is really even about.
The Chance Theater is presenting the OC premiere of Coyote on a Fence eight years after its debut, but it's lost none of its topicality. In fact, feel free to extrapolate the relevance of its sticky scenarios about the U.S. criminal justice system to the new frontier of international terrorism, where due process, torture, incarceration and execution are being redefined at notorious Guantanamo and a rumored archipelago of secret CIA prisons worldwide. Thanks to director Patricia Ansuini's deft use of a four-actor cast and the cramped conditions of this small venue, it isn't that big a stretch.
Coyote on a Fence is set on the death row of an unnamed prison, where inmate John Brennan (a mostly good Richard Comeau) publishes a small newspaper—complete with obituaries—that has attracted mainstream media attention. He tries to humanize the condemned and not-so-secretly hopes to elicit public sympathy that will spare him the executioner's needle. But humanizing his fellow murderers becomes, oh, awkward when he's faced with eulogizing Bobby Reyburn (the promising Casey Long), an unapologetically racist, although sweetly simple-minded, mass murderer who moves into an adjacent cell.
Long has the play's most difficult role, and not only because the portrayal of people with mental handicaps so often sucks actors into cliché. He's also tasked with showing Reyburn's pathological hate while sympathetically revealing how this mindset came to make perfect, loving sense to him. Although there are a few rough patches, Long ultimately pulls it off, and his success is the production's success.
By the time it reaches its conclusion—which is more or less where it began—Coyote on a Fence has moved beyond polarized debate over the same old subjects. Justice? It's as subjective as objectivity . . . as innocence . . . as guilt . . . as determining what weight to assign to the cold, hard facts vis-à-vis the mitigating ones, which are frequently still warm and malleable and very, very sad and creepy. Simply choosing a side—either side—on the issue of capital punishment is just taking the easy way out.
COYOTE ON A FENCE AT THE CHANCE THEATER, 5552 E. LA PALMA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 777-3033. SAT., 4 P.M.; SUN., 6 P.M. THROUGH SEPT. 10. $22-$25.