In David West Read’s 2011 play, The Dream of the Burning Boy, coming of age in the face of love, loss, and grief offers a poignant lesson for characters and audiences of various ages and stages of development. Initially produced by the Roundabout Theatre, in New York, Burning Boy has been produced across the country. Now, in its west coast premiere, The Dream of the Burning Boy comes to the Malibu Playhouse, through October 13.
Directed with a focus on youthful sensibilities and adult repression by Edward Edwards, Burning Boy is a touching contemporary drama set in a high school. It opens with an English teacher, Larry (a straight-laced and credible characterization by Jeff Hayenga), admonishing a student, Dane (a wide-eyed, precocious portrayal by Matthias Chrans), for not taking an assignment seriously. Subsequent to the encounter, Dane exits the classroom. Soon after, we hear a crash and thud. Dane has been seized by a fatal brain aneurysm.
The remainder of the play demonstrates the difficulties of coping with a death when it visits so unexpectedly. We meet Dane’s classmates, Kyle (a magnetic Zach Palmer) and Chelsea, who was also Dane’s girlfriend (a naturalistic Joslyn Kramer), as well as Dane’s rebellious older sister, Rachel (Jayne McLendon, tackling a challenging role).
Each individual, of course, addresses Dane’s death in a different fashion, while also contending with the daily demands of adolescence. Chelsea is confused and irritated. Kyle is opportunistically seeking to advance his relationships and fulfill his hormone-driven desires, now that Dane is dead. And Rachel is manipulating the situation to her advantage by playing the sorrow card. Teachers are too sympathetic to assign Rachel anything but an “A” grade for her classroom efforts.
When school guidance counselor Steve (the charming Tyler Ritter) attempts to provide a kind ear and open-heart to Larry, Larry is not just resistant, he is disrespectful of Steve’s attempts to reach out – not only to him but to the students. After all, part of Steve’s approach is to post feel-good banners around campus with platitudes such as “IT Will BE OKAY.” These annoyingly cloying “signs-of-resiliency” are certainly phrased in a manner that is far beneath Larry’s rigorous literary standards.
When Steve surreptitiously arranges for Dane’s mother, Andrea (an emotionally resonate Melissa Kite), to meet with the unsuspecting Larry, we learn, among other startling revelations, that Andrea is angry because Larry has had the last words with Dane and not her.
The scenic design by Erin Walley is a meticulous representation of a high school classroom – from the carve-scarred desks and poster boards to the drab-yellow institutional wall coloring. What’s more, Greg Chun’s sound design is perfectly synchronized with the action of the play, as is Mike Reilly’s lighting motif. Further, Allison Dillard’s costumes are congruent with the outfits likely to be seen on any American high school campus.
The title, The Dream of the Burning Boy, is taken from a case study in Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and it supposedly gives the show the psychological imprimatur necessary to be a believable scenario. It’s a nice, authoritative touch that provides a counterpoint to the soap opera sentiment often on display in this eighty-minute production.
– Ben Miles