-- 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
"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
The play garnered Graham the 1998 Lois Rich and Richard
Rosenthal Award, given annually for the "Best New American
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 www.usm.edu/tickets.