Alice Weber

Coyote on a Fence at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage

When I realized Alice Weber would be directing this show, I felt glad I stopped off for that extra cup of coffee before entering the theatre. Two years ago I attended a performance of Dr. Cook’s Garden which she directed at Bridge Players Theatre Company. I still lose sleep at night trying to wrap my mind around that one. To the delight of theatre fans, Ms. Walker brought her unique brand of high minded, thought-provoking drama to Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage. She selected the perfect vehicle in the form of Bruce Graham’s Coyote on a Fence.

The Cinnaminson venue continued its own tradition of intense drama, as well. I didn’t believe it possible for 2nd Stage to follow-up their October presentation of ‘night Mother with a show of comparable intensity. They sure found one; and they selected the prefect director to stage it. A haunting evening of theatre resulted. I attended the opening night performance on March 24, 2017.

Coyote on a Fence told an uncomfortable story to watch. Death Row inmate John Brennan (played by Robert Beaucheane) passed his time writing for and editing the prison newspaper The Death Row Advocate. His flattering obituaries of those executed by the State neglected to mention their crimes. This apotheosis of sociopaths gained the attention of New York Times reporter Sam Fried (played by John Weber). Upon receiving the journalist’s letter informing Brennan that he’d like to meet with and write a story about him, a new prisoner entered the next cell.

White supremacist, the loquacious Bobby Reyburn, (played by AJ Krier) occupied it. While feeling no remorse for his crime, he accepted his guilt and didn’t want to appeal or delay his execution. Ironically, he developed into the more gregarious of the two men. This conflicted with Brennan’s view that he, and all those preparing for execution, were merely “accused” and had a duty to appeal their sentences. An existential debate ensued between the educated writer and the slow minded bigot. It concerned making one’s peace with God and accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Their exchanges made for a heady 90 minutes.

The playwright didn’t reveal the nature of both men’s crimes until mid-way through the show. Not knowing what each had done kept me engaged and added a sense of mystique to the drama.

Ms. Weber made outstanding casting choices for the two lead roles. Mr. Beaucheane and AJ Krier played off each other extraordinarily well. These two thespians’ complimentary skills as a dramatic team could only be compared to the aptitude of Footlighters’ comedy legends Al Krier and Dan Brothers. (Both of whom I had the pleasure of encountering in the audience prior to the show.)

It’s difficult selecting the appropriate superlatives to describe AJ Krier’s performance. He infused a sense of boyish innocence into the character. That’s not an easy achievement when continually reciting the Aryan creed. While playing an ostensible psychopath, he still drew laughter from the audience when either delivering comedic lines or imitating a seal. The man has range. He added authenticity to his role by speaking in a Southern accent. In spite of delivering myriad lines that made the audience cringe, he still evoked sympathy through his enactment.

Robert Beaucheane shares Ms. Weber’s artistic tastes. He played the title character in Dr. Cook’s Garden. For this show, he accepted the role of another complex character. He credibly played a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, death row inmate who wrote and edited a prison newspaper. It’s difficult to animate abstract concepts such as denial, but Mr. Beaucheane established the standard for doing so. He also managed to adjust from the psyche of an austere scholar to that of someone with anger issues. His approach to the character reflected the overall play: he got me thinking. As with the role of Dr. Cook, I struggled to understand the character’s true nature.

Regina Deavitt (another cast member from Dr. Cook’s Garden) and John Weber rounded out the ensemble. Ms. Deavitt (as prison guard Shawna DuChamps) evoked sympathy for those awaiting death sentences through her moving bar-room monologs. She brought such realism to these scenes I felt like I was having a beer with her.

Mr. Weber (as Sam Fried) took on the most difficult role in the play. As a father and writer who shared many of Brennan’s views, he needed to show how the two were similar but different. Through his mannerisms, speech inflections and rational thinking he proficiently balanced curiosity and irritation in his scenes opposite Mr. Beauchane. I even jumped when he threw his wallet. Still, he kept his anger controlled.

I did have a few issues with the script. It seemed far too cliché that the playwright made the unapologetic racist a Southerner. I found that too stereotypical; especially in a play that premiered in 1997.

I also thought the story took long in developing. That’s common with ‘serious’ character driven plots. I’d encourage audience members to hang in there through the first 20 minutes of exposition. The remainder of the play made it worthwhile.

In the playbill, Ms. Weber expressed the trenchant thought:

In vivid scenes, Coyote on a Fence explores the disturbing question: Can one be innocent though proven guilty? This penetrating new drama offers no clear verdict, just utterly compelling theatre.

I always appreciate this director’s intellectually provocative contributions to South Jersey Community Theatre. I leave her shows with a broader perspective on intricate questions. I’m sure other audience members do, too. Now, is there any chance Ms. Weber would consider making a career change and become a political analyst?

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Theater Review – Dr. Cook’s Garden at Bridge Players Theater Company

Many think horticultural concepts can’t be combined with those of mass murder. I’ve got news for those people. It’s been done by the Bridge Players Theater Company in Burlington, NJ. In fact, they melded the two extremely well this May in their production of Ira Levin’s disturbing piece Dr. Cook’s Garden.

The play itself premiered in September of 1967. At that time America entered a period of deep introspection. The Civil Rights Movement had begun, people questioned our involvement in Viet Nam, and the ‘Summer of Love’ just occurred. During this era our nation re-examined many concepts that once seemed sacrosanct. In this sense, Dr. Cook’s Garden reflected the questioning nature of the time period.

The Bridge Players Production featured Fran Pederson in the role of Dr. Jim Tennyson. Like many in those days, the draft board summoned him to report for examination. He needed to obtain childhood medical records to excuse him from serving in the military. This led him to visit his home town of Greenfield Center, Vermont. He met with his mentor and local doctor Dr. Leonard Cook, played by Bob Beaucheane, to acquire them.

Citing medical issues from childhood to avoid military service may sound ethically dubious. As the play went on I realized that plot point merely a teaser.  The moral ambiguity kept coming. In the course of the visit Dr. Tennyson spoke with the doctor’s housemaid and his nurse. (Played by Marti Palmieri and Regina Deavitt.) Dr. Tennyson learned that many people he knew before leaving for medical school had died. He became suspicious. Upon speaking with the doctor’s gardener (played by Mike McCollum) and investigating his records, Dr. Tennyson suspected that Dr. Cook may have been killing his patients.  He confronted the man with these allegations.

The real drama then commenced. Pederson delivered accusations with assurance and conviction. Beauchane’s reserved, laconic assertions of innocence had this reviewer convinced he did nothing wrong. At least until he calmly admitted he did.

Then the drama went into overdrive.  Pederson and Beaucheane played off each other exceptionally well. In the course of their argument they debated Dr. Cook’s faith that his “removals” turned Greenfield Center into an ideal community. Dr. Tennyson rebutted that murder couldn’t be justified in the interest of bettering society. The moral arguments kept coming along with an exceptional plot twist. At times I didn’t know if I was watching theater or hearing a disquisition on philosophy. I quickly realized the latter wouldn’t have engrossed me such. Kudos to Pederson and Beaucheane. They presented a scene that could’ve been pedantic and made it engaging.

Beaucheane also served as the lighting director on this project. He used his dual roles to outstanding effect. One scene in Dr. Cook’s examination room really grabbed me. While speaking to someone on the phone he expressed concern that his nemesis had a terminal illness. The dim illumination made Beaucheane appear dark and sinister. Through the performance’s early scenes his warm tone of voice and laid back mannerisms resembled those of a devoted town doctor. Due to lighting and superb acting ability he transformed into the Angel of Death.

I also enjoyed the way the Bridge Players Theater Company established the scene. Before the show and during intermission, they played 1960’s Rock and Roll over the loudspeakers. The peace symbol Mike McCollum wore on his forehead added an authentic reference to the era, as well.

Dr. Cook’s Garden is the greatest masterpiece I’d never heard of. In the playbill Director Alice Weber wrote, “I hope you agree with me that Dr. Cook’s Garden raises some difficult questions, and I hope it makes you think a little bit as you make your way home.” It sure did. The more I contemplate the myriad ethical issues raised in the play I think about it even more. The show runs through May 16th.