nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
August 16, 2007
New York Theatre Experiment's production of Burn begins in the dead of night with three teenagers—Ricki, Lewis, Jack—holding flashlights. They are roaming the hills above the Tug River Valley on the border of West Virginia and Kentucky, looking for the deserted and supposedly haunted Stratton house. They discuss the ghostly cries and screams rumored to come from the house while contemplating the horrible things purported to have happened there. The teens want to see for themselves if the screams truly exist. A Man in tattered clothes interrupts their search. He seems to know a lot about the Stratton place. He warns them though that truth can be more terrifying that legend. With that warning, the lights go up to reveal the Stratton house as it was in 1860. The teenagers put away their flashlights. The Man reveals the legend.
The old Stratton house is peopled by a poor and struggling family. There is Tom Stratton, a decent and hard working man; and Ma Stratton, his geriatric mother who spends her day in a rocking chair spewing bile at anyone unfortunate enough to cross her line of sight. Then there is Bill Fields who lives up the road with his wife Anne, who works Tom's fields and competes with Ma Stratton for the title "The Most Unpleasant Tug River Citizen Ever." Two slaves work the fields as well: William, an older man with a deceptively simple smile; and James, a young man made complicated by youthful pride and perilous secrets. Creighton James's script does a nice job in these early scenes to establish both the everyday interactions and the relational hierarchy among these characters while providing glimpses of the cracks that could lead them to rupture.
Into this fray, with a sizable inheritance, comes Cady Stratton, Tom's mute teenage niece sent from the East Coast after the death of her father, Tom's estranged brother. Cady's innocence could not be more out of place in this unforgiving terrain and the tainting of her purity sets into motion a series of events, culminating in a shocker of an ending that made the hairs on my head stand at attention.
Adam Arian's direction makes the most of Creighton's time-traveling script. The teenagers and the Man literally circle around the action, asking questions, providing commentary and all the time being drawn into the story. Arian employs some clever staging techniques to imbue the Stratton's story with a creepy reality, giving it the tone of a campfire tale where danger lurks around every corner and the ultimate horror is inevitable.
There are still some aspects of Burn which need some reworking. Events sometimes feel planted for the purpose of reaching its stunning climax and certain themes don't resonate as much as they could. The consequences of Tom's drunkenness, in particular, don't carry as heavily as they should (Please pardon the vagueness; I don't want to give anything away). But the play achieves a sublime sense of tragedy that hits hard at the individual level while hinting at larger social and historical implications, a feat not easily or frequently achieved.