The Burials Review - A Courageous Exploration of a Contentious Issue

 

(left to right): Olivia Cygan (Sophie Martin), Coburn Goss (Ryan Martin) and Becca Savoy (Chloe Martin) in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ production of The Burials

 

Steppenwolf for Young Adults opens it 2016-17 season with the world premiere of The Burials, written by Caitlin Parrish and directed by Erica Weiss. Drawing on the structure and themes of the Greek tragedy Antigone, The Burials follows high school senior Sophie Martin in the wake of a school shooting perpetrated by her brother. Powerful, profound, and timely, this contemporary tale with ancient themes tackles one of the defining issues of a generation with sensitivity, empathy, and wisdom.

 

(left to right): Olivia Cygan (Sophie) and Becca Savoy (Chloe) in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ production of The Burials

 

The oldest of three high-school aged siblings, Sophie has long been the literal poster child of her father’s political campaigns. But when her brother Ben brings a gun to school on the day of the Republican primary, Sophie’s fierce loyalty to her father begins to waver as he disavows his son and advocates for arming teachers as the solution to gun violence in schools. Bursting with uncompromising passion and a determination to do what’s right, Sophie is every bit a modern-day Antigone, and her interactions with various characters—her sister, friends, classmates, and teachers—inform her changing point of view as she struggles to determine her opinions and her role in the aftermath of the shooting.

 

(left to right): Kristina Valada-Viars (Mrs. Souder) and Olivia Cygan (Sophie) in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ production of The Burials

 

The Burials employs a rock star cast of talented actors. Olivia Cygan is a powerhouse as protagonist Sophie; her character’s journey is a long and difficult one, but Cygan never loses an ounce of Sophie’s relentless energy, even as she faces her most challenging moments. Coburn Goss brings a warmth and smoothness to politician Ryan Martin that makes his response to the tragedy all the more chilling and his moments of unbridled rage all the more terrifying. Ben, whose presence in the story is confined to a series of diary-like video clips projected onto a screen, is nevertheless portrayed with haunting and nuanced realism by Matt Farabee.

 

(left to right): Olivia Cygan (Sophie Martin) and Coburn Goss (Ryan Martin) in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ production of The Burials

 

Both the emotional and the practical reality of social media is handled exceptionally well in this production; the frenzied and emotionally-charged responses to mass shootings on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and so on are a core part of our cultural processing of these events, and The Burials does not shy away from this but embraces it. Projector screens displaying scrolling YouTube comments and overlapping Tweets allow these posts to become a key player in the story’s unfolding.

 

(left to right): Ty Olwin (Greg), Stephanie Andrea Barron (Janette), Olivia Cygan (Sophie Martin), Becca Savoy (Chloe) and Joel Boyd (Jayden) with Matt Farabee (Ben) pictured on the video screen

 

Video clips of Ben before the shooting add another important dimension to the performance, giving the audience a chance to encounter Ben without the filter of other characters’ perceptions, but not allowing them any more access to him than members of the general public have. In this way, the audience receives the same amount of information about the attacker as they do for real mass shootings, but the proximity created by following his family forces a new and multifaceted perspective on a familiar issue.

 

(left to right): Becca Savoy (Chloe), Joel Boyd (Jayden), Stephanie Andrea Barron (Janette) and Olivia Cygan (Sophie) in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ production of The Burials

 

Scenic design by Courtney O’Neill captures the grandiosity of a Greek amphitheater and the mundanity of a public high school gym in a single, clean stroke. Lighting and sound design by J.R. Lederle and Matt Chapman, respectively, create a harrowing offstage depiction of the shooting. Costume design by Alarie Hammock adds the right touch of realism, and the prom-appropriate formalwear of the final scene is particularly well done.

 

(left to right): Coburn Goss (Ryan Martin), Kristina Valada-Viars (Zoe), Olivia Cygan (Sophie) and Becca Savoy (Chloe) in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ production of The Burials

 

The Burials is a play that, like the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program itself, puts its faith in young people. By reframing the question of mass shootings from why to how, Parrish’s script provides a succinct and compelling response to an ongoing national dialogue. It is exciting to see a script, production, and program that work hard to empower young people, whose voices are too often drowned out in a conversation that centers on them. The Burials is an intensely important piece of theatre, and audiences of all ages would do well to attend.

 

(left to right): Ty Olwin (Greg) and Olivia Cygan (Sophie) in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ production of The Burials. All photos by Michael Brosilow

 

Ticket Information

Public performances are October 8 (3pm and 7:30pm), October 14 (7:30pm), October 15 (3pm), and October 22 (3pm and 7:30pm). School performances are Tuesday through Friday at 10am and are reserved for school groups only. A study guide is available online here. Tickets to public performances ($20; $15 with student I.D.) are available through Audience Services (1650 N Halsted St), 312-335-1650 and the Steppenwolf website.

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