Shortly before seeing the world premiere of Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins’ “The Burn,” a disabled adult friend sent a post. She was heartbroken over some rude and cruel comments people had made about herself and her boyfriend. She didn’t understand, and she didn’t know what to do.
That brought the theme of “The Burn” all the more closer to what I experienced in this fresh, bold production for Steppenwolf’s Young Adults. “The Burn” brilliantly showcases what happens to a teacher and his students when a new student transfers in and classroom conflict results in deliberate and cruel acts of bullying online and in real life. Ingeniously woven throughout are parallels to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” the play the teacher is about to direct.
Director Devon de Mayo and his perfect ensemble of five actors realistically brings to life Dawkins’ play, which is based on his actual experience while teaching at a Chicago high school. “The Burn: is sharp, current, truly topical and always immersive.
Don’t be scared away by the serious content. There are plenty of funny moments and lines – the plagiarism scene being the best. You’ll appreciate lines such as, “Bicycle shorts? Dad spanx!” and “Sacrilegious? There’s an SAT word.” And you’ll laugh when fashion-trendy Tara admits shop class isn’t exactly what she expected, “I was disappointed when I found out what shop was really about!” You do need, however, to be aware there is coarse language and intense vocabulary which, at times, is shocking, but not surprising.
All five cast members are vibrant, credible actors; they have tremendous stage presence and chemistry. Erik Hellman as Mr. Kranaceck is a superb actor; he portrays a witty, with-it, 37-year-old drama teacher forced to teach English classes. He’s patient, he’s angry, he understands his students, and he’s also proud of his sobriety. Phoebe Gonzalez as Mercedes, the new student, archs and transitions as her character is pushed beyond endurance. She is a evangelical Christian, bullied for her prophesizing, witnessing and beliefs. Dyllan Rodrigues-Miller is delightful as Shauna, the catalyst who unknowingly changes the playing field and trajectory of the play when she befriends Mercedes at a “Crucible” rehearsal. Nina Ganet as Andi ,the follower and major duomo to Tara, displays a penchant for portraying a difficult, diverse character. She’s the great pretender. But Birgundi Baker, an electric actress, as Tara steals the show. She’s the passive-aggressive, intelligent, mouthy, witty ring leader. While you marvel at her convincing skills, you also feel the sorriest for her and probably the most afraid for her character. Mr. Kranaceck early on sums her up: “You know a lot of words, and not a lot of definitions.”
The simple set of typical high school chair desks and a stationery teacher desk designed by Courtney O’Neill is minimal and utilized well. The clever back-wall projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson signal scene transitions and the raging growth of the plot.
In its short 90 minutes, “The Burn” pushes you to ponder much: truth, integrity, the power of groups, the sanctity of your name and cyber bullying. As a teacher, I continue to debate how schools are tethered down with false hopes and archaic ways of dealing with the proliferation and power of social media. As Tara says, “If you put something on the Internet, it will be sampled and handed back to you. It’s creation... it’s remix.” This play, as Dawkins hopes, will have many car-versations on the ride home.
After “The Burn’s” run at Steppenwolf, it will tour three juvenile justice facilities in Illinois in partnership with Storycatchers Theater. Commendable, needed and to be applauded!
• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Formerly serving on the Raue Center for the Arts Board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.
WHEN: Through March 10
WHERE: The Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago
COST & INFO: Presented by Steppenwolf for Young Adults. Mercedes is an outsider. Tara makes sure she knows it. When a high school production of “The Crucible” forces them together, tensions escalate into acts of bullying. Production time: 90 minutes with no intermission. A relaxed sensory friendly performance will be at 3 p.m. March 10. Tickets $15 students, $20 public. Tickets and information: 312-335-1650 or www.steppenwolf.org.