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Dream of the Burning Boy
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: David West Read. At: Profiles Theatre at the Alley Stage, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets: 773-549-1815;; $35-$40. Runs through: April 28

Death interrupts! Among the many irksome injuries generated by the Grim Reaper, the most painful is his blunt and irrevocable reconfiguration of the bereft survivors' future expectations. Oft-invoked anticipations of the years ahead, in which the missing person may have played a prominent part, must be quickly revised. This information typically takes time to process—indeed, many reminders may be needed before habitual fantasies can be abandoned and the expediency of their abandonment accepted.

The deceased, in this case, is a high school student named Dane, who sustains a fatal brain aneurysm following a conference with his English teacher. The school counselors take immediate action with memorial assemblies, posters bearing consoling slogans, a week's suspension of classroom activities, none of which are effective at easing the shock—initially. Dane's sister rages against the sanctimonious hypocrisy surrounding the event, his girl friend is pressured to mourn his loss more deeply than their relationship deems appropriate, and his mother blames the teacher for letting him die unaware of his true lineage, while the teacher, though he protests any complicity, is no less troubled by the boy's untimely demise. Their self-appointed comforters—one for the students, another for the grownups—shrug off the hostile rejection of their services, patiently awaiting the moment when each of the bereaved kin and kindred undergoes their individual catharsis, after which the healing begins.

This progress alone would be enough to sustain the 80 minutes of the play, but author David West Read appears to have feared his audiences becoming impatient and so, raises a number of unnecessary questions, only to dismiss them moments later. We forgive him his error, since our attention is riveted, not on plot twists or social issues, but on character. Darrell W. Cox projects just the right level of avuncular concern—and denial—as the professor suffering a Dickensian secret associated with small communities and populaces that rarely stray far from home. Eric Burgher endows his nerdy counselor with a resiliency hinting at the strength beneath the superficial silliness. Sarah Chalcroft likewise imposes a dignity on Read's overly-melodramatic scene of maternal grief.

In the end, though, the show belongs to the teenagers, played by actors barely a year away in age from their personae and thus capable of imbuing their dialogue with the unimistakeable authenticity of adolescent confusion at their first encounter with death—in particular, Alaina Stacey (a senior at Whitney Young High School) as the ambivalent Rachel, whose stubborn bravado in the face of mixed feelings over her brother's memory makes us want to assure her (noting the irony as we do) that loss will come easier with experience.

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