When I first saw Phillip Dawkins’ The Burn as part of Steppenwolf Theatre’s annual First Look staged reading series in 2015, I was blown away. Dawkins’ writing is sharp, incisive, and biting, but it’s also soft and compassionate and human. It borrows from Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible, but it is also utterly contemporary in its language, subject matter, and sensibility. The story is moving, emotional, and powerful, with characters Dawkins is unafraid to place firmly into moral grey area, each of them justifying their actions in sometimes surprisingly valid ways. I was stunned to find a play written by an adult man that understands so intricately the lives of teenage girls—the challenges they face, the ways they struggle to cope, and the multiplicity of identities they have to shape in an increasingly digital world.
Now in full production at the Steppenwolf as part of their fantastic Steppenwolf for Young Adults program, The Burn is even more vivid and powerful in full production. The story follows the paths of four teenage girls, three of them a group of popular students and one a recent transfer and devout Christian who is mercilessly mocked by the other three online. But the story is not so cut and dry as characters debate the nature of identity and anonymity, the harm of insults the victim can’t see (victim Mercedes doesn’t own a computer and isn’t on social media), and what, if any, retaliation is acceptable when bullying is happening. This is not a play about an adult lecturing young people on appropriate use of social media. It’s a complicated exploration of who we are in the face of the digital world, and it treats its teenage characters with the respect and nuance they deserve.
Gorgeous projection design by Rasean Davonte Johnson is instrumental in creating the mixed “IRL” and digital environment the play takes place in, with elegant and complicated montages of Instagram searches, Facebook comments, memes, and more representing the steady stream of social media content the characters consume and contribute to. So too does sound design by Sarah Ramos, with its heavy bass and sampling from the music of popular female artists, create a sense of urgency and intensity in moments of abstract movement or interactions in the digital world. Indeed, this largely female design team, lead by one of my favorite Chicago directors, Devon de Mayo, does a magnificent job of fleshing out the world of the play.
Similarly stunning is the work of the show’s four actors. Erik Hellman, who read the role of teacher Erik in the First Look reading and performs in this production through March 3, brings the same earnestness, vulnerability, and loveable goofiness to the educator that he did in the reading. Phoebe González is utterly convincing as the intensely religious Mercedes. Nina Ganet deftly captures lesbian athlete Andi’s stylized speaking patterns as well as her vulnerabilities. Dyllan Rodrigues-Miller is thoroughly compelling as Shauna, a mean girl who finds herself sincerely connecting with outsider Mercedes, at the risk of losing her status in the “in” crowd. And Birgundi Baker is a strong, confident Tara, the leader of the pack who nevertheless has her our trauma to deal with and whose attitudes about truth, discussed in a heated argument with Erik, are some of the most fascinating ideas in the play.
The Burn has a whole lot of elements that gel together perfectly to create a realistic and deeply meaningful piece of theatre. With limited public performances, don’t wait to get your seats to this spectacular world premiere.
Public performances for The Burn are Saturday, February 17 at 3pm and 7:30pm; Friday, February 23 at 7:30pm; Saturday, February 24 at 3pm and 7:30pm; Friday, March 2 at 7:30pm; and Saturday, March 3 at 3pm and 7:30pm in the Upstairs Theatre. Weekday performances are reserved for school groups only.
Tickets to public performances ($20; $15 with student I.D.) are available through Audience Services (1650 N Halsted St), 312-335-1650 and at the Steppenwolf website.
All photos by Michael Brosilow.