WHAT IS LEFT, BURNS
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Through November 30, virtual membership for six shows $75
The pandemic lockdown of theaters across the country has come with a side benefit that I hope you’re all taking advantage of: the opportunity to see live and prerecorded work by companies around the world from the comfort of your home. Of course, it’s not the same thing as sitting in a dark venue, being part of an audience, watching a story unfold in the same time, air, and space as the performers, but we have to make do with what we have. I’ve been particularly drawn to theater and dance created during the crisis as creators experiment with Zoom and other platforms to bring entertainment to a public starved for it. Which is why I’m excited that Chicago’s fabled Steppenwolf Theatre has just kicked off its Steppenwolf NOW program, a virtual series that consists of six online works through June 2021.
First up is James Ijames’s What Is Left, Burns, streaming this month. During the health crisis, people have been communicating more than ever via video, logging on with friends and family, sometimes digging deep into the past to reach out to those who might not be part of their lives anymore. In What Is Left, Burns, a literature professor and a former student reconnect after fifteen years, bringing up long-left-unsaid feelings as they take stock of their lives without each other. “It’s been a long time,” says the younger Ronnie (Jon Michael Hill) with a big smile. “Yeah, it has. Actually, honestly, I wasn’t sure you’d respond to my email,” replies the older, tentative Keith (K. Todd Freeman). “I wasn’t sure either,” the more open and emotional Ronnie says. Over the course of twenty-three minutes, the full extent of their relationship is revealed, involving love, lies, personal and professional jealousy, and, above all, loneliness, which we each have been facing in our own ways during Covid-19.
Though not about the pandemic, What Is Left, Burns is tailor-made for our current state of mind. By now we are used to watching others on our computers like never before, and Tony nominees Freeman (The Song of Jacob Zulu, Airline Highway) and Hill (Eastbound & Down, Superior Donuts), who last performed together onstage in 2009 in Tina Landau’s production of The Tempest at Steppenwolf — Freeman as Caliban, Hill as Ariel — do an outstanding job of making us feel just the right amount of uncomfortable as we peer into their private conversation; Freeman is appropriately jittery as Keith, who is hesitant to share too much at the outset, while Hill is bright and engaging as the bubbly Ronnie, who smiles widely even as he harbors discontent at what happened between them. Ijames uses his experience as a director (The Brothers Size), playwright (Kill Move Paradise), and actor (Angels in America) — he portrayed Franco in a Philly production of Superior Donuts, the role that earned Hill a Tony nomination — to craft an intimate tale that works on multiple levels.
Director Whitney White rhythmically cuts from Keith, sitting in his chair with books, CDs, and photos around him, as well as a computer open to the TED Legacy Project talk “The fight for civil rights and freedom” with John Lewis and Bryan Stevenson, while Ronnie is in front of a much more sparse background as he moves throughout his apartment. White (What to Send Up When It Goes Down, Our Dear Dead Drug Lord) adds interstitial abstract scenes that bathe the two boxes in mysterious pastel blues, greens, and reds, with droning sound and music by Justin Ellington that take us further into the characters’ complex psyche. Lowell Thomas serves as director of photography and video editor, using iPads, laptops, and phones from multiple angles to avoid the action becoming too static, which is the case with so many Zoom presentations. What Is Left, Burns is a strong start to Steppenwolf NOW, which continues with Isaac Gómez’s two-act radio play Wally World in December, Rajiv Joseph’s ten-minute Red Folder with Carrie Coon in January, Vivian J. O. Barnes’s Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! in February, Donnetta Lavinia Grays’s Where We Stand in April, and Sam Shepard’s Ages of the Moon with Randall Arney and William Petersen in June.