LCC’s ‘Coyote’ is a deep dive into death row

“Coyote on a Fence,” now playing at Lansing Community College’s Black Box Theatre, is a sliceof-life drama that follows two very different men as they await execution on death row.

Bruce Graham’s stark psychodrama takes the abstract philosophical arguments that drive the ongoing discussion over the ethics of capital punishment and makes them personal.

The title image itself urges reflection.

Who is on the fence? Brennan makes it clear in mid-play that we all struggle to find dignity when facing death, but do murderers deserve dignity? Do we gain insight and wisdom looking at all sides of an issue?

Are people who murder irredeemable?

Does one killing justify another?

Inmate John Brennan, portrayed by Michael Banghart, is at the heart and soul of the play. He is a prisoner who mentally refuses the notion of prison, who believes in fighting for his own life and the lives of fellow prisoners, never giving up hope, even as he counts the days. Banghart’s performance is steady-as-she-goes-calm, a believable character from the moment he begins speaking. Brennan is an advocate for others and writes their obituaries, imbuing them with dignity at moments of despair. It’s a case of a script meeting the right actor — a true marriage of minds.

Director Paige Tufford summons up the technical skills of set and lighting designer Bob Fernholz to cloak Brennan with a gray-walled wrap-around set. Two adjacent prison cells, slightly askew, draw us into the tightly controlled environment of cellmates. A prison spotlight drifts ominously back and forth across the stage.

Ben Guenther plays the second cellmate, Robert Allen Reyburn, an innocent-sounding mass murderer whose complex developmental limitations and multiple pyscho-pathologies intersect. Reyburn’s delusional thinking and intellectual developmental disability provide a psychobabble cocktail of speculation as to whether he actually knew what he was doing at the time he did it.

Guenther tries on a variety of nuances, stutter-stepping, gazing into space, trying to capture the elusive other-worldliness of his character. Clearly, he put a lot of thought into creating this character and he conveys the below-the-surface vulnerability of this sadly deranged persona.

Featured actors Steve Lee as a New York Times investigative reporter and Cassidy Addis Greene as a prison guard frame the dialogue between Brennan and Reyburn, adding context, but this show belongs to the two prisoners.

Coyote on a Fence 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Oct. 6-7 Lansing Community College Black Box Theatre 1422 Gannon Building, 411 N. Grand Avenue, Lansing $5-10 (517) 483-1488