By C. S. Gilbert
Get out the fire hoses, folks. Theatre XP: Summer Stage's season finale, Lanford Wilson's "Burn This," literally lights a fire on stage. This climactic moment takes real effort to achieve -- on the part of the actors and the production staff and on the part of the audience as well -- so if you're looking for mindless summertime vacation fluff, you probably won't take to this show. Anyone looking for intelligent theater, however, is strongly urged to attend.
"Burn This" is categorized by the playwright (and others) as a contemporary love story. Being probably a little long in the tooth to be considered contemporary, I nevertheless know that a romance with no conflict is a romance between at least one, if not two, comatose individuals. Yet Wilson arguably takes conflict and contrast a bit far.
But the skill of Matt Hollis Hulsey and Melody Moore, in the roles of Pale and Anna, help bring the play to a satisfying if not ecstatic conclusion.
And oh, what skills. Hulsey as the character Jimmy, aka Pale, brother of the roommate recently deceased in a boating accident, is probably the year's most spectacular find in the local theater department. After a solid but only moderately outstanding performance in "Conch Republic, The Musical," he reappeared superbly as the academic Nick, the most sane character in Summer Stage's superb opener, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" In "Burn This" he tears the roof off the Red Barn as the guy you love to hate and then, amazingly, the guy you understand and are even -- maybe -- able to root for in love.
As Anna, Melody Moore is excellent, indeed heart-rending. In this play she has a chance to be softer, more vulnerable than in her previous central roles as the strong and/or brittle women in "At Last Light," "Dinner" and "Person of Interest." The softness somehow suits her well. In theater there's something called playing to type; a cruder description is type casting. Moore is neither a modern-dance choreographer nor a New Yorker but in "Burn This" she plays a role that seems to emanate from her skin.
So too, it seems, does Bob Bowersox, again doing able quadruple duty as founder and co-producer of Summer Stage and director as well as supporting actor of this production. But Michael Aaglan, as Anna's gay roommate Larry, and especially Hulsey are clearly creating people beyond themselves, finding the essence of character acting. Hulsey is over the top in his creation of an ambiguously threatening, gun-toting, philandering, working-class New Jersey homophobe. It is a brilliant performance, worth the price of admission.
"Burn This" upholds the high standards that the company has set for acting (especially acting) as well as in production. Audiences are given the gifts of laughter, thought and emotion. The show runs through July 27.