THE BURIALS Takes on Gun Violence

THE BURIALS Takes on Gun Violence

Review: THE BURIALS at Steppenwolf

By Smyra Yawn

THE BURIALS, a world premiere presented by Steppenwolf for Young Adults is as heavy as theater for young adults gets. The story follows Sophie, an “upstanding young millennial” and her family following the fall out after her brother goes on a shooting spree in her high school. The play doesn’t shy away from the social, political and racial dimensions of gun violence and mass shootings. In fact, the first act tended to feel a little too much like an Idea Play about #gunviolence and #millenials. Thankfully after the first 30 minutes, the plays slows into an exploration of the emotional aftermath of a school shooting—for the victims, for the survivors and most interestingly for the family of the shooter. From the moment the shooting occurs, in an aural scene beautifully and hauntingly composed by sound designer Matt Chapman, the characters begin their journey of catharsis. THE BURIALS, you see, is loosely based on/inspired by the story of ANTIGONE and the structure of greek tragedy is ever-present. The set itself melds the image of a greek amphitheater with a high school common area.

Sophie, played by Olivia Cygan becomes torn not only by her feelings for the little brother who committed this heinous act, but by her Republican politician father, played by Coburn Goss, whose haste to disavow his son is almost shocking.  His answer to the public in response to his son’s actions is a call to arm teachers–the good guy with a gun argument.  Sophie, herself a survivor of the shooting, cannot bring herself to agree with him publicly or otherwise.

We hear from other students at the school, the most incisive commentary coming from Jayden played by Joel Boyd. He, a black male, was held down by members of a swat team as they swept the school looking for the shooter. Was Sophie, a while girl, held down by a swat team?  Was her sister? If Jayden had shot up the school, would anyone wonder if it was his mental state that leads him to act, or would they assume he was just a criminal, a murderer? THE BURIALS also poses smaller questions like, it is okay for Sophie to mourn her brother even as the whole town is still processing the aftermath of his crime? What is she supposed to feel? Does she owe anyone an apology?  

THE BURIALS crams a lot of thoughtful ideas into a 90-minute run—sometimes at the expense of the emotional weight of the moment. Playwright Caitlin Parrish wants the young people in the audience to feel empowered, compelled to take action against gun violence. Indeed, the end of the play features its young protagonists taking symbolic and practical action to stop the cycle of violence. It is a play meant for young audiences, but adults—parents and teachers especially—will relate to the conflicts that play out.

About author

Smyra Yawn

Since 2011 Smyra Yawn has worked as a stage manager, production manager, business manager and teacher in Chicago. She enjoys also coffee and gardening.