There are as many shades of grief as there are survivors in David West Read’s powerful The Dream Of The Burning Boy, now getting its West Coast Premiere at Malibu Playhouse in a production that easily rivals the best of L.A.’s higher-profile 99-seat houses.

Read’s play opens with a teacher-student conference like any other, 50ish high school English teacher Larry Morrow (Jeff Hayenga) expressing disappointment in the Dante’s Inferno essay Dane (Matthias Chrans) has entitled “Losing My Virgil-ity: My First Date With Dante”—though Larry appears confident that the 17-year-old can do better next time. Then, only seconds after Dane’s “See you tomorrow” comes the sound of a body crashing into a locker followed by a booming thud, and Larry realizes that the unthinkable has happened just outside his classroom.

BB production photo 7 Dane’s shocking sudden death from a brain aneurysm offers 20something guidance counselor Steve (Tyler Ritter) his biggest challenge to date, that of helping those left behind deal with their grief, and that includes Larry, who is none too happy to see his students “skipping class to talk to talk to you, or going home, and I’ve got no one left to teach.”

This business-as-usual attitude worries Steve, particularly since Larry admits to having recurring dreams about Dane, though these the teacher blames on Steve’s “having got everyone talking about Dane all the time, it’s all I ever hear.” Could it be, though, that dreaming of Dane holds considerably deeper meaning for Larry?

Dane’s pretty, popular girlfriend Chelsea (Joslyn Kramer) is keeping her days (and mind) occupied with busy work like making Dane’s memorial Facebook page, creating a “Fondly Remembered” page for the newspaper, and taking time to read the many comments posted by friends, while Dane’s buddy Kyle (Zach Palmer) does his best to cheer Chelsea up with small talk and silly jokes.

BB production photo 5 Meanwhile Dane’s caustic-tongued year-older sister Rachel (Jayne McLendon) expresses angry disbelief at the school’s clichéd memorial for her brother, since, she sneers, “it combined all of the things that Dane really loved, like candles … people he didn’t know talking about him … more candles” and to top it all, the senior choir singing “In The Arms Of An Angel.”

As for Chelsea’s bereaved girlfriend act, Rachel wonders if the blonde beauty was even still going out with her brother when he died and if she is now only saying she was in order to gain attention. “You waltz around the school, the weeping bride, all distraught over Dane,” Rachel spits out, “and then you go home with Kyle,” a suggestion that the pair’s friendship may be more than either of them is letting on.

Still in his mid-twenties, Julliard/NYU Tisch-grad Read writes refreshingly cliché-free teen characters, though equally noteworthy are the three-dimensions he gives Larry, whose only childhood friends were school librarian Monsieur Giroux and fictional heroes like Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and the Hardy Boys, and who now seems capable only of forging relationships inside his four classroom walls.

About halfway through The Dream Of The Burning Boy, Read drops a bombshell, not even a hint of which will be offered here, but one that will have you recalling the play’s early scenes with new eyes even as most of Read’s characters feel its explosive effect.

Edward Edwards’s nuanced direction of this first West Coast production of Read’s dramedy equals his Scenie-winning work in All My Sons and this past year’s Tender Napalm, and he is aided and abetted by an all-around terrific cast, all but one of whom are new to this reviewer.

The evening’s dramatic honors go to The Dream Of The Burning Boy’s brilliant star, an exciting supporting performance, and a one-scene star turn you won’t soon forget.

Hayenga is absolutely brilliant as the well-intentioned, emotionally-stunted, quietly grief-stricken Larry, whose anguished eyes reveal every bit as much as his words often hide. If a performance consists of equal parts acting and reacting, then Hayenga delivers one of the year’s finest on both counts.

BB production photo 2  Though not quite as credible a teen as her costars, it’s easy to see why McLendon nabbed the role of Rachel, the NYU Tisch School Of The Arts grad giving the evening’s most quicksilver, in-the-moment performance, the kind that inspires folks to exclaim, “I couldn’t take my eyes off her,” and in a quiet, beautifully played scene opposite Palmer’s Kyle, McLendon gives Rachel a beauty, vulnerability, and courage that will break your heart.

BB production photo 4 It’s been over five years since I saw Melissa Kite in her Scenie-winning performance as a quintessential 1950s housewife in Boise U.S.A., and her work here makes it well worth the wait. As Dane’s bereaved mother Andrea, Kite has just one scene in The Dream Of The Burning Boy, but it is a multi-layered stunner, one that had me marveling at the sheer beauty of her work and Hayenga’s even as the two of them held me in their emotional thrall.

Kramer and Palmer create vivid portraits of two of the school’s most popular in-crowders whose The CW-ready good looks hide rather more troubled souls than we might immediately assume.

Despite an early demise, Malibu High grad Chrans makes an indelible impression as the student whose memory pervades The Dream Of The Burning Boy from its quiet start to its heart-rending finish.

Finally, Ritter carries on the family name in ways that would make his dad proud indeed, giving an utterly charming performance as the school’s well-meaning yet occasionally socially inept guidance counselor.

BB production photo 1 Erin Walley’s scenic design marks the L.A. debut of the recent Missouri-to-California transplant, but her high school classroom/guidance counselor’s office is as rich and finely detailed a creation as any of our most sought-after designers could have come up with. Ruskin Theatre regular Mike Reilly’s superb lighting design is a textbook example of what fine lighting can do to enhance a play’s most dramatic moments. Greg Chun’s pulsating sound design ups the dramatic ante as well, while Allison Dillard’s excellent costumes reflect each character’s age, situation in life, and personal fashion choices.

Tim Ross Davis is stage manager and Breck Gallini assistant stage manager.  Ede Crowder, Gallini, Michael Stahler, and Michelle Thomas are understudies. The Dream Of The Burning Boy is produced by brand new Malibu Playhouse Artistic Director Gene Franklin Smith and Rick D. Wasserman.

Smith and Malibu Playhouse scored a coup in nabbing the rights to The Dream Of The Burning Boy. L.A. audiences luck out as well in getting to see the play the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood called both “eloquent” and “affecting” in a West Coast Premiere worth every mile of the drive up PCH.

Malibu Playhouse, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu.

–Steven Stanley
September 5, 2013
Photos: McCarthy Photo Studio

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