Jessica McLeod ’02 and Sarah Thomas ’01 have been working on a WSP 99 Project in conjunction with the theatre department for the duration of this year’s Winter Study. The opus is Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, which is set to open Tuesday night in the Studio Theater at the Adams Memorial Theatre. Directed by McLeod and starring Thomas as the only female lead in the play, Burn This continues a line of Winter Study productions that have been produced as 99s over the past few years.
“What happened was that over the summer Sarah [Thomas] contacted me, and said that she wanted to put a proposal up to the department, and that she might want me to direct her. So I said ‘fine’ and I read the play,” said McLeod. “Then it got passed, although it was passed so she could only act in it and not direct it, so she brought me on as director, which made the department very happy to have more people involved.”
Aside from acting in and directing the show, McLeod and Thomas were also in charge of designing the costumes, the set, and virtually everything else that goes into putting up a well-orchestrated production. “It took a lot of time,” said Thomas, “I didn’t actually realize how much time it would be to do everything [for the show], but it has definitely been a lot of fun.”
The plot of the play focuses in large part on a fifth character, Robbie, who never actually appears, but whose death immediately before the start of the play provides the backdrop for the dramatic narrative. All of the characters were intimately involved in Robbie’s life before his death: Anna was his dance partner and best friend, Larry was his roommate, Pale was his brother, and Burton is Anna’s boyfriend.
“The first act sets out the problem for the show,” said McLeod. “ It’s about the shoes that Robbie has left to be filled. And for every character, the dynamic in their life really shifts. The second act deals with the decisions the characters make about this problem.”
The fall auditions led to the casting of Thomas as Anna, Peter Van Steemburg ’03 as Larry, Alex Lees ’03 as Burton and Ian Lockhart ’02 as Pale. Lees, describing his experience with Burn This, said, “It’s a very human-based play. It’s not pure comedy, it’s not pure cheese, and it’s not melodrama, and I like the fact that it is grounded in human experiences. I thought it has been a good experience to portray a real human being, which is a change for me. It’s about sex and death and love and kicking people’s asses. The absence of a loved one and how that can really disrupt someone’s life.”
Van Steemburg had similar sentiments. “This is the most realistic play that I have ever done,” he said. “The people in it are very real people, so you don’t arrive at that point where there is one moral message. There is no real overall theme. It’s actually just like a chunk of life: four people and their relationships with each other. The play is not trying to fill any obligations. There are a lot of heavy themes, such as death, acceptance and strange kinds of love. It’s about decisions, and we’ve had to do a lot of personal things to get ready for that type of role. It’s shows a chunk of life, and you have to make your own decisions about the characters, and that’s where I think Lanford Wilson was right on.”
“The play ends on a note where you’re not really sure what’s going to happen afterwards. The resolution is not final at all,” McLeod said.
“It’s been a very interesting experience because we’ve only had three weeks to do this, and I’ve never done a play in that short amount of time,” said Lockhart. “We’ve had to work very hard, and I think that Jess as a director has done very well because we spent the first week at least just looking at the characters, trying to understand what their motivations and train of thought are. We have definitely looked more into the emotional content than the technical stuff. The process has been a lot of fun.”
McLeod had more to add on the stature of the play itself. “It’s different from anything that has been on a Williams stage for a long time because it’s so realistic,” she said. “My hope is that everyone who was involved in this show has really learned a lot, because it is really different from anything that Williamstheatre or Cap and Bells has done, and I’m very happy about that. It’s been hard work but a lot of fun.”
Burn This runs Tuesday at 8 p.m., Wednesday at 9 p.m. and Thursday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are free at the door of the Studio Theatre but seating is limited.