Life after death
It’s more than fitting that fledgling Resurrection Theatre would produce Burn This as its inaugural effort with an expanded company. The Lanford Wilson play—an actor’s favorite, for good reason—deals with the messy aftermath of grief.
Robbie, a famous dancer about to launch a choreography career, dies in an accident with his lover, Dominick. The play begins in the days immediately following his funeral, as we meet his roommates, Anna (Kristine David) and Larry (Shawn B. O’Neal), and Anna’s boyfriend, sci-fi screenwriter Burton (Joshua Glenn Robertson). The incredible Robbie was (to put it mildly) not close to his family, and the depth of their denial (not just of his sexuality but of his identity) has left Anna as angry as she is grief-stricken.
Then Robbie’s older brother, Pale (Eric Baldwin), shows up to gather his things, and oh, is Pale ever a piece of work. He’s everything Anna doesn’t like; in fact, he’s the very definition of a Philistine (or at least he seems to be). But like Anna, Pale is overwhelmed with grief at Robbie’s death.
More than most plays, Burn This is concerned with not only the disruption and destruction that grief causes in our lives, but also the possibilities that loss can occasion for us. As Anna and Pale try to come to terms with the loss of Robbie, they also have the opportunity to take some risks with their own still-unwinding lives.
As Anna, David initially comes across as fragile, but then develops a spine of steel. She is well-cast as a dancer, and physically embodies the delicate but powerful persona of her character.
She is matched fully by Baldwin’s Pale, who is the yang to her yin in a very literal way. Baldwin has a history of what we’ve sometimes called “men behaving badly” roles (he was stellar in Glengarry Glen Ross at Big Idea Theatre earlier this season, and played Republican dirty-tricks strategist in a one-man show Atwater: Fixin’ to Die at California Stage). While Pale initially seems like more of the same, Baldwin brings a depth of emotional vulnerability to his performance, giving Pale humanity and grace.
As Larry, the wise-cracking roommate with a heart of gold, O’Neal has plenty to sink his teeth into; that he does so without also chewing on the scenery is testimony to his self-restraint. Robertson’s rich-boy nerd is quietly well-done—and the first time we’ve seen him in a nonmusical role. It’s official; he can act and sing.
The set is detailed, yet retains the illusion of space—a tough trick to pull off in the Wilkerson Theatre, which has some odd angles in the ceiling and a very narrow proscenium. Stage design is uncredited on the program, but Brian Watson was responsible for the production design. Ernesto Bustos choreographed the fights, which was no doubt difficult given the space constraints.
Lisa Thew (on loan from KOLT Run Creations) both directed and did the sound design. Burn This avoids the easy way out; it is a textured, thoughtful production. The only real difficulty is with the volume during some of the more emotionally violent scenes—the Wilkerson does not have acoustics which allow for a lot of variation in types of shouting, and it was overwhelming.
But of course, both grief and life are like that.