‘Dream of the Burning Boy’ at Profiles: Loss, loneliness and anger shroud a student’s death
Review: “The Dream of the Burning Boy” by David West Read, at the Profiles Theatre Alley Stage through April 28. ★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Larry teaches high school English, and his students think he’s great. That he’s as psychologically closed as a book on a shelf has never been an issue, or even especially noticed – until one of his students suddenly dies, and the teacher can’t summon the empathy so desperately needed by grieving teenagers.
“The Dream of the Burning Boy,” playwright David West Read’s painfully honest look at loss and the secret chambers of heartache, is enjoying an all-too-brief run at Profiles Theatre with Darrell W. Cox in a performance of ironic eloquence as the teacher who cannot speak his heart.
Cox’s emotionally boxed-in figure is set in high relief by Joe Jahraus’ free-wheeling direction and by the work of two fine young actresses. Marilyn Bass brings a palpable aura of caring to the deceased boy’s girlfriend, an archetypal most-popular girl called Chelsea. And Alaina Stacey flaunts the bespectacled plainness of his sister Rachel like the prickly badge of a very deep anger.
The whole school grinds to a shocked halt after the student’s fatal aneurism. There’s a memorial assembly and testimonials. Classes are cancelled and the students are encouraged to talk with the school counselor. Teacher Larry was the last person to speak with the boy, to discuss an unsuccessful attempt at an essay. Now he quickly loses patience with all this morbid distraction from the proper business of education: study, classroom attendance, learning.
When the counselor, Steve (played with bubbly sweetness and fetchingly awkward charm by Eric Burgher), urges Larry to give up an hour of Dante and let the kids talk about their classmate’s death, he will have none of it. All the lessons of life, he says in effect, are right there in “The Divine Comedy.”
But his students – particularly Alaina Stacey’s rancorous, plain-spoken Rachel – begin to see through him. Did he have friends when he was growing up? Sure, he says, lots of friends: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn. Meanwhile, Larry begins to show the stress of the situation. He sleeps at his desk, his clothes become rumpled.
As the atmosphere of grief unnerves the students, tempers grow short. In one harrowing scene, lonely, self-loathing Rachel launches into a raging classroom tirade against pretty Chelsea, accusing her of, well, just whatever comes to mind. Larry, ever the contained mentor, watches this meltdown, unable to offer the calming influence of reason, understanding, sympathy.
In Cox’s repressed, ineffectual man – highly effective teacher but encrypted soul – we see unspoken misery compounded by a profound sense of loss. Cox plays it with minutely gauged sensibility, ever the sure, purposeful pedagogue on the surface even as his mind reels with thoughts of those last minutes before his student’s death. The teacher’s reticent calm strikes a particularly stunning effect in a meeting with the dead teenager’s emotionally charged mother.
Steve the counselor senses his friend’s inability to open up, to acknowledge that something truly awful has happened here, and keeps coming back with dubious, even comical ideas to help. When it becomes obvious that Larry is suffering in silent torment over the boy’s death, Steve brings up an anecdote from Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams,” the episode of “the dream of the burning boy,” in whose dreadful imagery the psychoanalyst read signs of a grieving father’s reluctance to let go of his dead son. This lifeline, too, is rejected by Larry – or apparently so.
But if Read’s play is about pain and loss, it is also about friendship: teenager for suffering teenager, man for man. Flaky Steve, Larry’s one pal, stays the course. It is Cox, however, who makes play’s consummation, an epiphany cast in the pure light of friendship, so remarkable. It is an extended dramatic moment, as shattering as it is sudden and surprising.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com