Raw prison drama opening at Beckwith

Published 9:21 pm Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Donna Courtney, Jack Gannon, K.C. Matthews and Jared Windhauser, the cast of “Coyote on a Fence” directed by James Geisel.

Donna Courtney, Jack Gannon, K.C. Matthews and Jared Windhauser, the cast of “Coyote on a Fence” directed by James Geisel.

Bruce Graham’s 2000 prison drama “Coyote on a Fence” makes audiences look at the world in a different light and discuss difficult questions outside their comfort zone.

Can there be sympathy for a person who commits a heinous crime? What should we feel about such people as Bobby Reyburn (Kyle “K.C.” Matthews of Chicago), illiterate but likable, a funny 28-year-old guy who loves to do impressions and wonders if the sky changes color from town to town.

But he’s also a member of the Aryan nation and a racist predator convicted of killing 37 African Americans, including 14 children, by locking the door and torching their church. Is it our role to send such an insane man, hearing God’s voice, to death?

Then there’s John Brennan (Jack Gannon), an educated, arrogant, serious writer who may only be guilty of doing society a favor.

Gannon’s character was a drug and alcohol counselor who began dabbling in controlled substances and fatally kicked a man when a deal went wrong.

“All of us who really love this play, if we do it well, everybody will walk out of the theater asking themselves questions and thinking,” Gannon said.

As each awaits his fate, one evokes sympathy, the other derision.

“Coyote on a Fence,” opening a two-weekend run Friday at Beckwith Theatre, explores a disturbing question in a searing way: Can one be innocent though proven guilty? No clear verdict is offered.

Director James Geisel’s cast for his Beckwith debut also includes founding member Donna Courtney as cynical Shawna, the corrections officer who cannot look after 14 executions and Jared Windhauser as Sam, a New York Times reporter, and another Beckwith newcomer.

“At first I’m hostile,” Gannon said, “but I think after a while I’m a father figure” to Matthews’ character. “I’m the only one who really changes in the play. He helps me grow up from seeing his honesty and simplicity.”

Courtney, who teaches chemistry and environmental science at Southwestern Michigan College, last appeared on the BTC stage with Jack and Kyle in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.”

She has appeared in more than 30 plays over the past 20 years.

“I’m that ever-present sense of authority,” Courtney said, “but I’m also the ever-present sense of social morality. That’s what a lot of the vignettes off to the side are. I’m explaining what’s going on in the prison, but I’m also making comments about morality and that collective consciousness of how we feel as a society — not about the death penalty itself. The play is never about the death penalty. It’s about the relative degrees of evil, guilt and insanity. Shawna has no empathy for Bobby at all, but John got to her, maybe because of his eruditeness.”

Geisel is the artistic director of The Acting Ensemble Stage Company in South Bend, where he has directed more than 65 productions.

“Kyle brought the play to me and asked if I would be interested in directing it. I very much liked the play and thought it would be nice to be up here for the summer. I’ve not done it before,” Geisel said.

Paul Pugh designed the penitentiary set with two cells and an exercise yard.


What: “Coyote on a Fence” by Bruce Graham

Where: Beckwith Theatre, 100 New York Ave., Dowagiac

When: Aug. 2-4 and 9-11; 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Who: K.C. Matthews, Jack Gannon, Donna Courtney and Jared Windhauser

For tickets: Call (269) 782-7643 (ROLE) or email info@beckwiththeatre.com

Warning: This prison drama exploring morality and the death penalty features strong language and is not suitable for children.