Emergent Theatre’s COYOTE ON A FENCE Shows The Inhumanity Of Capitol Punishment

Coyote-on-a-Fence-at-Emergent-Theatre-Chicagio_thumbIt is no secret that America’s criminal justice system is horribly broken.  Massive cuts in rehabilitative programs coupled with the inherent public relations soundbite that our politicians have to be tough on crime has left us with a nation that has the worst prison statistics in any modern democratic country.   This is especially true in the ongoing debate over capital punishment where morality and retribution collide.  Most states have now banned the practice of execution including our own state of Illinois, where a moratorium by then Governor Ryan created a benchmark for others to follow.

The theatrical art form is at its best when it does more than just entertain but also enlighten.  Emergent Theatre Company’s new production of Bruce Graham’s Coyote On A Fence does just that task.  Graham’s play focuses on the relationship of two inmates on death row who come from opposite backgrounds.  John Brennen (Jim Saltouros) is an educated man and addict who is slated to be executed for a drug deal gone horribly wrong.  In the cell next to him is Bobby Reyburn (Casey Kells), a good ole uneducated southern boy and self professed arian who burned down a African-American church killing 50 men, women and children.   Brennen professes his own innocence and has become a media aficionado, much to the prison’s detriment while Reyburn is proud of his crime and looks forward to his demise.  As the backstories of Brennen and Reyburn come to the forefront, our preconceived notions of how we view the prisoner shifts to a deeper understanding of how they got where they are.

Spryly directed Mikey Laird, this production works as well as it does because of the erstwhile and meaty performances of Mr. Saltouros and Mr. Kells.   Each gives their character’s a truth and veracity the engages the audience in a way which only benefits Mr. Graham’s words.  The only times in which the  play loses momentum is when it shifts away from the two main characters to get the points of view from a prison guard (Lisa Stran) and the Time’s reporter (Peter Goldsmith).   It is not due to these actors’ performances, which are  both solid, but rather we have become so engaged in the relationship of these two inmates, that we don’t really care what the outside world has to say.  That is a testament to the abilities of Saltouros and Kells.

Throughout this production I could not help think about Truman Capote and the devastating effect writing In Cold Blood had on his life after ‘befriending’ two men on death row.  Coyote On The Fence is not there to change minds, but open up a dialogue.  This production succeeds on that and many other levels.

Coyote on a Fence continues through October 27 at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20-$25, and are available by phone (773-609-2336)  For more information at EmergentTheatre.org.  and TheatreInChicago.com  (Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission).