Not many people consider starting the new year by visiting two men on death row in a maximum-security prison. But after attending a rehearsal of Colonial Players' "Coyote on a Fence," that's my recommendation for adventurous theater fans.
Continuing its 65th season, Colonial Players is presenting "Coyote" as its first "arc" show of the season — a designation that indicates a more challenging show than its usual offerings, thus appealing to a smaller "arc" of subscribers and patrons.
This prison drama, continuing through Jan. 25, may ultimately stretch Colonial Players' arc, expanding the scope of the audience's experiences while emboldening actors, directors and designers to create compelling theater.
Such shows offer, as director Edd Miller says, "An opportunity for the audience to gain perspective and insight on a life situation not familiar — an opportunity to share a heightened awareness or a mind-expanding experience."
Miller, acknowledging his love of "delving into the backgrounds of the strong characters that inhabit these plays," encouraged his four-member cast to ferret out everything they could to create the people they portray.
"Making the characters live as real people is a joy," Miller said. "You may not like them, but if we succeed, you will want to know about them. To be able to look into what makes them who or what they are is what holds our interest."
Miller must be ecstatic, then, at how honestly and deeply his actors probe their roles here. The actors take on the multilevel facets of complex human beings with authenticity, helping audience members understand people who are very unlike themselves.
Playwright Bruce Graham based "Coyote on a Fence" on a real-life convicted killer who was editor of a prison journal, long on death row while attempting to reverse his conviction after his accuser had retracted false charges.
Graham used this as a basis for his fictional tale of John Brennan, sentenced to death for killing a drug dealer, who turns to writing obituaries for the Death Row Advocate, the prison newspaper. Brennan's new neighbor — and next obit subject — is Bobby Reyburn, an illiterate, anti-Semitic racist who set fire to an African-American church, killing 37 people.
Another character is New York Times reporter Samuel Fried, who visits Brennan to explore his reasons for writing prison obituaries. Fried discovers his inconsistent views on capital punishment when reacting to Reyburn's impending execution.
Rather than preach against capital punishment, Graham allows his characters to state arguments naturally, in conversations between Brennan and Fried and through Brennan's growing teacher-student relationship with Reyburn.
The fourth character in this drama is prison guard Shawna DuChamps, whose revealing, introspective observations seem to be addressed to another unseen journalist.
The two central characters in "Coyote" are fascinating opposites — one denying any guilt and the other flaunting it. Intelligent, well-educated Brennan is an unlikely long-term death row prisoner: He denies committing a crime and spends his days playing chess by mail, corresponding with a woman friend and composing obituaries.
He is disdainful of his uneducated, white supremacist cellmate, who believes he was ordained by God to kill the 37 black churchgoers. We learn the only love Reyburn ever knew came from an uncle who persuaded him to become a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Thom Sinn makes a memorable Colonial Players debut as John Brennan, finding the character's vulnerable core and layering it with his obsessive challenging of the criminal justice system, dependence on his female correspondent and use of his intellect to deal with prison.
Fellow lead actor Eddie Hall makes an equally compelling showing as Bobby Reyburn, projecting a disarming and disturbing boyish quality. Hall's Reyburn longs for Brennan's acceptance, offering animal interpretations to amuse so that eventually he might get a letter published in the prison newspaper.
Perhaps the most complex character, Reyburn has suffered past abuses he cannot discuss, but honestly admits his guilt without grasping its horrific consequences. Hall gives us a Reyburn who come across as, paradoxically, a somewhat likable bigot.
Another debuting Colonial Players actor who delivers a nuanced portrayal is Kecia Campbell as Shawna DuChamps. Campbell opens and closes the show with spellbinding soliloquies that create a shared confidence with the audience.
Players' favorite Jeff Sprague delivers another excellent performance in the role of Sam Fried.
"Coyote on a Fence" is so authentically illuminating that it might become a beacon to guide future courageous productions. A word of caution, though: Strong language and racial slurs are part of the dialogue.
For its performances Jan. 10-12, Colonial Players is offering an added incentive to buyers who purchase one ticket at regular $20 price — namely getting a second ticket at half price. To take advantage, call the box office at 410-268-7373.
There's also a special post-show talkback about the show, with tastings of beverages from Anheuser Busch, following the 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11 performance. Call for details, or go to thecolonialplayers.org for tickets and details on additional showtimes through Jan. 25.
Colonial Players is located at 108 East St., Annapolis.