Most big high schools are not unfamiliar with students dying. Teens can and do crash cars, get shot by other teenagers and, less often, die of natural causes — such as the brain aneurysm that fells Dane, one of the main characters in "The Dream of the Burning Boy." It's an affecting new play from a young and talented New York-based writer named David West Read now in its first Midwest production at the Profiles Theatre, a company known for its ability to find talented young actors.
With striking veracity and sensitivity, Read's 2011 play (first produced by the Roundabout Theatre in New York) chronicles how grief plays out in the American school system with its various tried-and-tested systems of crisis counselors, group therapy, memorials and special dispensations. In the best sections of this play, we meet ordinary students, including Rachel (Alaina Stacey), the sister of the dead kid, trying to navigate their way through this maze of pain. Read is especially sure-footed when it comes to the furiously angry Rachel (the excellent Stacey is herself still at Whitney Young High School), a character who quickly figures out that officially sanctioned mourning can actually be an attractive state for teenagers as it offers drama, attention for the bereaved, excuses for missing class and general emotional bathos, for which Stacey's wholly credible character has no time whatsoever.
Similarly, the play homes in on the problem faced by Chelsea (Marilyn Bass), who was dating, kind of, the kid who has died and now finds herself judged and second-guessed by everyone yet unsure of whether to play the grieving significant other or just another kid with complex teenage relationships.
The main thrust of the play, as manifest in this production, is less secure. It centers on Dane's English teacher, Larry (Darrell W. Cox), a buttoned-down professional who finds himself having dreams about his deceased student, who dies after a seemingly normal encounter in Larry's office. The play suggests something of a mystery about the true nature of their relationship and also probes Larry's relationship with Steve (Eric Burgher), a former student who has joined the school's staff and become an overly enthusiastic guidance counselor. Cox has his moments, but what is missing here is a clear sense of how this teacher is on a normal day and how that contrasts with what has happened to him in this terrible situation. In other words, the normative referent is missing and thus we don't see a man unravel, which appears to be what Read intended. Burgher captures the humor of his annoying but well-meaning guy, an apt satirical twist, but these goofy scenes sometimes tip over to the wrong side of believability.
In other words, director Joe Jahraus' production has some deftly directed individual moments, especially those in which the young actors (Joel Collins is also part of that group) let rip, but it struggles to find the right consistent tone. It feels woolly, muddy and overly staccato in places (the best scenes seem to come in bursts and then dissipate) and doesn't stay true to the best course: painful truths, slowly revealed as life goes on anyway.
When: Through April 28
Where: Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35-$40 at 773-549-1815 or profilestheatre.org