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Family searches for its heart at the Rep

By | 2009-04-02T09:00:00-04:00 April 2nd, 2009|Entertainment|

Families. For better or worse, love them or hate them, the families we’re born into are the foundations upon which our lives and histories are built. But what happens when familial secrets threaten to destroy that very foundation?
That’s the premise behind “Finding the Burnett Heart” by Paul Elliott that begins its world premiere run at the Detroit Repertory Theatre April 2. “The play is about this amazing relationship between a grandfather and his grandson,” revealed director Harry Wetzel. The two are forced to share a bedroom when the closed-minded elderly man moves in with his family to die. “At first, they hate each other’s guts. They’re not very accepting of each other at the beginning.”
Although the script contains plenty of familial tension and conflict, the story also includes the one ingredient Wetzel demands in every script he directs. “Mr. Elliott wrote a script that shows there IS hope. Good things and terrible things may happen, but the indomitable human spirit can still rise above it.”
Elliott’s script arrived at the Rep as many do – unsolicited. The staff passed it among one another for comments, and when the decision was finally made to stage it, the script landed in Wetzel’s lap. But no unproduced play is perfect. “I think every new script can be tightened, but I wanted to be fair to the play, so I wanted to block the whole thing and get it on its feet and hear it a couple of times before making any rash decisions,” he said.
So Wetzel did just that – and then contacted the playwright by phone. “I told him ‘I’m going to challenge you. Can you cut 10-15 minutes out of each act?'”
Elliott, with an extensive background as a screenwriter and TV producer/director, not only accepted the challenge, but within days a fully revised script arrived – minus 20 pages. “We were utterly amazed,” Wetzel recalled. “He really tightened the whole thing up – and the show is much cleaner. It takes courage to do that, because I know every comma is (a playwright’s) baby.”
Also debuting on opening night is 18-year-old Dante Jones, a senior at Thurston High School in Redford who plays Tyler Burnett. A past member of the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, the young actor is excited to work with such veterans as Will Young, Sandra Love Aldridge and Harold Hogan. “But to be frank, it’s intimidating to work with people who have been in (theater) for so long,” Jones said.
The script appeals to him, Jones explained, because he identifies with his character. “The first time I read the script, I remember feeling how Mr. Elliott was able to capture in words how I feel. It was like he knew me.”
Jones, who is gay, left the Detroit Public Schools last year because of the closed-minded individuals he encountered there. “In real life and in the play, I’ve bumped heads with my mom and with ‘the powers-that-be,'” he said.
Aldridge, who plays Tyler’s mother, believes a lot of people are going to recognize themselves in the play. “Especially anybody with a teenager.”
But what Jones hopes is that they also leave the show with the knowledge that certain traditions and beliefs aren’t all that important when it boils down to family and those that you love – and who love you. “That just don’t matter,” he concluded.

‘Finding the Burnett Heart’
Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit. Thursday-Sunday April 2 – May 24. $17-$20. 313-868-1347.

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