By F. Kathleen Foley
September 25, 2013, 10:47 a.m.
It has been proven time and again that the schoolroom is a ripe milieu for drama. There’s plenty of dramaturgical gold to be mined from memorable characters from the ideologically grandiose Jean Brodie in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” to the sexually repressed Hector in “The History Boys,” to the disastrously remote Andrew Crocker-Harris in “The Browning Version,” to name just a few.
David West Read honors those predecessors in “The Dream of the Burning Boy,” now in its West Coast premiere at the Malibu Playhouse.
The play’s protagonist is Larry (quietly assured Jeff Hayenga) a dedicated high school English teacher who has spent a lifetime buried in books, at a sad cost to his personal life. When a student’s death and the revelation of a long-kept secret ultimately erode Larry’s granite reserve, he is left exposed and in the open for the first time in his life.
Larry’s stoicism stands in wry contrast to the majority of the students, most of whom are out on “trauma leave” – Read’s wry commentary on modern society’s craven tendency to aggrandize loss. Ironically, only the students most affected by the death are still in school, seeking distraction from painful recollections and regrets.
Initially muted, director Edward Edwards’ staging mounts to the emotionally fraught, mirroring Larry’s own psychic progression. Blessedly, Edwards has cast actors who actually appear to be in their teens, a precociously accomplished cast that includes Matthias Chrans, Zach Palmer, Joslyn Kramer and Jayne McLendon, particularly fine.
Melissa Kite is excellent as a grieving mother, as is Tyler Ritter as a comically inept young guidance counselor. Ritter heroically smooths out the rough edges of his overwritten character, whose goofy stratagems sometimes seem misplaced in this otherwise richly credible context.