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Released September 14, 2004

HATTIESBURG -- What began with a Philadelphia Inquirer article about convicted killer James Beathard became an inspiration to playwright Bruce Graham.

Under the direction of Robin Aronson, assistant professor of theatre at The University of Southern Mississippi, the Department of Theatre and Dance will open its 2004-05 season Oct. 6 with Graham's profound and unexpected look at capital punishment, "Coyote on a Fence."

The play itself poses the question, "Can one be innocent though proven guilty?" Although a death row prisoner may paint a scary, dangerous and offensive image, this play is more than a simple exercise in the pros and cons of capital punishment.

"What is so fascinating about this play is that we come to know John and Bobby (the inmate characters) on a very intimate level," Aronson explained. "Somehow these images are changed both for the men and the audience."

John Brennan, a convicted murderer of a drug dealer, and his new cell neighbor, Bobby Reyburn, a racist convicted of torching a church and killing 47 black men, women and children inside, are the source of Graham's search into the essence of evil by using the nature of innocence to reveal the "real" men in this play.

"Their lives are revealed to us, and we see the humanity of these men on death row," Aronson said. "Their prison lives are remembered through words, letters, and memories."

Brennan is an educated, articulate man who plays chess by mail and writes a prison newspaper called the Death Row Advocate. He takes it upon himself to write sanitized obituaries for the men who are put to death for their crimes. By doing so, he hopes to find some good in the men that society has labeled as monsters, especially in himself.

In contrast, Reyburn is a childlike simpleton who equally personifies a brutal racist and who easily spouts Aryan rhetoric and propaganda. Born "damaged," he has been abused at every stage of his life. Firmly believing the Aryan way, he makes no excuses for his crime, and calmly waits to go to a better place for doing God's work.

Thus, one question Graham poses, "Is he truly evil or is he an innocent drawn in by evil?"

Graham's characters come across as solid and complex as he shifts the audience's sympathies. The writing is elegant yet simple-often funny. He uses these light touches in its most chilling moments.

The play garnered Graham the 1998 Lois Rich and Richard Rosenthal Award, given annually for the "Best New American Play."

Hopefully, the play will propel Southern Miss Theatre through this season's American College Theatre Festival program equally well. "This is our latest Bruce Graham play to produce-the first being "Moon Over the Brewery" in the summer of 2001 and "Early One Evening at the Rainbow Bar and Grille," the last show of the 2003-04 season," said Stephen Judd, theatre coordinator. "It will be our ACTF show this year and has been built to tour."

Aronson, in her third year at Southern Miss, is no stranger to the theatre's season audience. Her first play, the musical "And the World Goes Round" in the 2002-03 season, was a rounding success, followed by the 2003-04 production of "Cabaret." During summer 2004, she directed the Southern Arena Theatre production of Steve Martin's comedy, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile."

Following her lead are cast members Lee Crouse as Brennan, a first-year M.F.A. candidate of Magnolia, Ark.; Sal Mannino as Reyburn, a sophomore theatre major of Metairie, La.; Kathy Newman as prison guard Shawna DuChamps, a second-year M.F.A. candidate of Rome, Ga.; Daniel Dauphin as journalist Samuel Fried, a third-year M.F.A. acting candidate of Ocean Springs; and Felicia Scott as Willie T., a speech communications major of Magnolia.

The artistic staff includes Laura Happel of Owego, N.Y. (scenic designs); Ben Wheeler of Pensacola, Fla. (lighting design); and Brendan Belote of Vienna, Va. (sound design). Robden Sheffield of Diamondhead will serve as stage manager.

Tickets are now on sale at the Southern Miss Ticket Office. The show runs nightly at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6, 8-9 and 12-16 at the Martha R. Tatum Theatre in the Theatre and Dance Building.

Tickets are $10 general admission, $8 for Southern Miss faculty and staff and senior citizens, and $6 for students. Season ticket packages are still available. Call the Southern Miss Ticket Office at (601) 266-5418 or 800-844-8425 for tickets and information. Order tickets online at


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October 22, 2004 5:26 PM