BWW Review: THE BURN at The Hub Theatre
There's a burgeoning sense of paranoia throughout The Burn, the first show of The Hub Theatre's 2019 season. Written by Philip Dawkins as something of an analogue to Arthur Miller's The Crucible - itself an acknowledged allegory for McCarthyism - The Burn is a sharp and deeply felt look at how fear grows and manifests itself in the pain of others. Its contemporary high school setting handily provides both a relatable set of characters and a convenient grapevine through which said fear makes its journey: social media. It's not a new trend, but this play has more on its mind than our over-use of social media; accepting of the reality it's given us, The Burn explores what sort of actions it can lead us to.
The Crucible is more than inspiration for Dawkins' play: it's a plot point. Mercedes (Gabby Wolfe), a new student, is encouraged by her teacher Mr. Krawczeck (Elliott Kashner) to audition for the school's production of The Crucible. Mercedes has had a difficult time fitting in, and he reasons that the theatre might help her find a group. But her troubles run deeper than being an outcast: Mercedes, a devout Christian, finds herself the target of vicious online harassment by way of Tara (Chloe Mikala), Andi (Christina Day) and Shauna (Rae Venna). Worse still, she only hears about it secondhand, since her family doesn't own a computer. Once these threads are established, The Burn lives up to its title: a creeping, deliberate loneliness begets confusion begets anger begets blinding pain. Repeat.
Dawkins gives the cast a lot to work with, and none of them disappoint, peeling back layer after layer. By the play's conclusion, we're able to trace the actions of every character. In a slight reversal of The Crucible, Gabby Wolfe's Mercedes is a Christian concerned not with damnation but salvation. Her church is her life, her staunch allegiance to God unfathomable to her classmates who are used to a more secular society. She prays for others and doesn't hide it, and when she's met with self-righteous refusal, the way she processes her pain is palpable. This is a role that could fall into caricature in lesser hands, and Wolfe brings a lot of empathy to Mercedes. We're not asked to agree with her, but we always understand her.
The Burn might be a play about the effect bullying has on the victim, but the bullies themselves aren't one-dimensional characters. Tara, Andi and Shauna are cruel on the surface, but there's more to each of them than we initially see. Chloe Mikala's assured performance as Tara digs the deepest. She's in constant survival mode, ensuring that she can't perceived as anything other than in control of her own life. Christina Day, as Andi, is the most outwardly barbarous to Mercedes, but even she carries hidden, undefined bruises. Day always makes sure we see Andi's struggle to be seen as equal. Rae Venna has a more sympathetic role to play as Shauna, cast alongside Mercedes in The Crucible. The two warm up to one another quickly, but Shauna - and we - know that she's targeted her new friend, and her immense guilt follows her everywhere. Dawkins has given these characters a lot of text speak - WTF, IRL (you get it), and while it never damages the performances, it is grating after the first scene.
Elliott Kashner rounds out the cast as Mr. Krawczeck. He acts as a moral compass for his students, and when they don't follow his guide, we begin to see just how heavy it weighs on him. Kashner shares powerful scenes with both Wolfe and Mikala in which their differences - in gender, religion, race, age - highlight just how far he has to go before truly being able to understand his students. Kashner paints a character who may not even believe what he preaches, and his slow realization of that truth is heartbreaking.
The direction by Matt Bassett, the new Artistic Director of The Hub, is at its most potent when The Burn takes sharp turns into the theatrical. Dawkins includes several out-of-body scenes that take direct inspiration from the witchcraft at the center of The Crucible. They highlight the damaging unease that permeates our characters and their world, and leave a lasting impression. Several scenes show private text-like conversations between Tara, Andi and Shauna buried just underneath lectures by Mr. Krawczeck - or, rather, his lectures become buried under them. They're expertly performed and a tight mixture of legible and disarming.
Bassett's strongest work visually comes at a shocking moment of violence - a character is physically assaulted, but the words are the weapons used, and the stage picture we're left with stays long after curtain. Bassett's work is aided by Elizabeth Zuck's evocative set. The basic classroom setup allows the ensemble to move. Zuck has included four clear sheets upstage for the teenagers to find solace - when they aren't onstage, we're still aware of how their actions at school follow them everywhere. Catherine Girardi's lights and Reid May's sound design wouldn't be out of place in an actual production of The Crucible - both inspire disorientation and dread.
Regular audience members should note that both The Burn and their next production, American Spies, will be performed at NextStop Theatre Company in Herndon, VA, after a long residency at the New School of Northern Virginia. Bassett has made excellent use of NextStop's expansive space, and it's exciting to imagine a future for The Hub there. In the meantime, don't miss The Burn. It promises a great future for one of the most exciting companies in the area.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
The Hub Theatre's The Burn runs through May 11th at NextStop Theatre Company, located at 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, VA, 20170. For tickets, visit The Hub's website.
A quick note: much of Philip Dawkin's work can be read on New Play Exchange, including The Burn and The Happiest Place on Earth, which The Hub produced in 2017.