Four public high school girls and an intelligent, caring teacher study and rehearse Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. This may seem nothing very unusual, but that play is a classic story of cliques forming within small groups, politicking for advantage. Its subject, the Salem witch trials of 1692-1693, were driven in large part by the testimony of children thought to be innocent of adult malice.
How would that moral panic in Salem have been different if those 17th century children had cell phones and computers to text each other and post on social media? The Burn aims to find out.
“Mercedes” (Sarah Leach), often shortened to “Mercy,” is the new girl, having transferred from another school. Coming from a devout Christian family that chooses to own neither a television set nor a computer, she dresses in ultraconservative black and gray in almost Victorian style and takes her religion very seriously. Her classmates find her weird, at one point describing her among themselves as “Amish.” Despite not fitting in, Mercy takes to the class – despite her skepticism about the teacher, “Erik” (Brien Lang), whose prior production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie had too many swear words for her taste.
The de facto leader among her classmates is “Tara” (Daraja Hinds), a headstrong girl three months away from graduation who deploys her obvious intelligence more often for bad purposes than good, the sort of streetsmart kid whose every nerve is wired to a defense mechanism. Her friend “Andi” (Shannon Hartman) is more interested in basketball than anything that involves thinking, and her eagerness to please and be accepted makes her vulnerable to exploitation. “Shauna” (Jeff Hodges) rounds out the group as a fundamentally good-hearted kid who is at least aware when she caves in to peer pressure that she is doing so.
The Burn, to its credit, does not imagine children reverting to savagery as their airplane crash lands on a desert island and they must survive without adult supervision. If anything, it sees modern teenagers as too exposed and connected with the world, constantly tested against and falling short of expectations where the slightest embarrassment or gossip can be magnified at internet speed to web scale. As in 1690s witch-hunting or 1950s red-baiting, keeping things private is seen as inherently suspicious.
Lang is outstanding as a teacher whose most remarkable characteristic is his sheer ordinariness, just trying to come to work every day and make the lives of his students a little better. He tries to keep some things secret from them, such as using a bicycle as his commuting vehicle and not accepting Facebook friend requests from his students until after they are graduated. His success is measured in one hilarious scene where Tara, Andi and Shauna outside of class almost glimpse the irony of their studying The Crucible while gossiping about Mercedes behind her back.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Leach as Mercedes and Hinds as Tara perfectly paired as the main antagonists, and Hartman and Hodges acquitting their very different roles well.
Special praise is owed to Keri King who designed a sparse set that evokes a completely forgettable generic high school classroom, right up to its evocation of a suspended ceiling that isn’t even a ceiling, and to Andy Russ who crafted a multimedia experience that comes as an effective surprise. Musical selections before the performance featured a selection of songs related to education, usually ironically, including “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police, “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd, and “To Sir, with Love” by Lulu.
In 90 minutes with no intermission, The Burn is a tightly packed look into how modern teenagers, with cell phones and iPads, are ultimately no different from children three centuries ago, driven by the same social and psychological forces that can turn a group into a bullying mob. The Burn shows Wilbury at its best: a small but gifted cast in an intimate setting performing intellectually challenging and engaging material.
The Burn, by Philip Dawkins, directed by Logan Serabian, performed by Wilbury Theatre Group, 40 Sonoma Ct, PVD. Through Feb 3. Refreshments, including beer and wine, available. Handicap accessible. Free on-street and limited off-street parking. Info: thewilburygroup.org/the-burn.html Tickets: web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/1002658 Telephone: 401-400-7100. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org