You don’t just walk into OnStage Playhouse’s theater. You must stop and spread your arms out wide.
291 Third Avenue, Chula Vista
A prison guard (Twila Burnett) frisks you with a metal detector and points if it makes a noise. Her cold stare convinces that if you don’t play along and reveal the cause, she won’t let you see Bruce Graham’s prison drama, set in the Death Row Unit of Alabama State Penitentiary.
Inside, Chad Oakley’s set hits you with chainlink fences. A glass guard booth oversees two prison cells, in institutional lime green. There’s a small cocktail lounge, on a platform stage left, but it also feels like part of the institution.
This is where Shawna Duchamps (Holly Stephenson) drinks at the end of her shift as a guard.
When there’s a “murder” — an execution of an inmate, which she always witnesses — she must fend off reporters and try to forget what they want her to reveal.
John Brennan (Larry E. Fox), convicted of a crime he swears he didn’t commit, has been at the penitentiary for ten years. He edits the Death Row Advocate and gives “a voice to the men on the row.” He tells the human side of the often-stereotyped prisoners. That he leaves out their brutality has generated controversy.
The newest inmate in the adjoining cell will challenge John’s search for the goodness in a person. Nineteen-year-old one-eyed Bobby Reyburn (Shane Ruddick Allen) is an Aryan Brotherhood xenophobe who burned down a black church, killing 37 people, (including 14 children).
At first John wants nothing to do with the racist, anti-Semitic punk. Then John tries to understand where such rancid, unconditional hatred could come from. Allen’s performance as Bobby makes the search worth pursuing. He’s excitable, open, spontaneous, and touching as the brainwashed young man (“the only person who ever loved him taught him how to hate”).
In lesser hands, Bobby’s just a sociological study. Allen deftly shows not only what he is, but, in different circumstances, what he might have been.
Imprecise choices and the sense that he hasn’t been in prison for ten years make Larry E. Fox’s John Brennan difficult to locate. There’s a lot more character there. And possibly more of a connection with Holly Stephenson’s agitated Shawna. He’s in denial about his guilt. Is she denying guilt over the death penalty? And is she repressing feelings for him?
Salomon Maya does capable work as an award-winning, nosy reporter, and Nicole White is downright creepy as the guard who greets you at the door and who, throughout, sustains an inflexible persona.
The acting’s a bit uneven, and the script is not without lapses, but credit must go to director James P. Darvas for the intense atmosphere and making the scenes flow.
Steve Murdock’s sounds also contribute, be they protesters outside the prison or the incessant howls of inmates down the row.
(corrected 1/26, 9:05 a.m.)