There’s a moment towards the end of “Finding the Burnett Heart” when a very frustrated and upset Grace Burnett shrieks at her husband, son and father-in-law, “This is not a laughing matter” – and she’s correct: Threatening to toss your 16-year-old out of the house unless he abandons his evil ways is indeed serious business. The scene is a pivotal one, full of stark contrasts – and it was at that instant on opening night when the crafts of playwriting and performance art melted away and revealed the power of human nature at its best and worst, darkest and brightest. And that is the genius behind Paul Elliott’s thought-provoking play that had its world premiere April 2 at the Detroit Repertory Theatre.
Adjustment isn’t easy for the Burnett family when patriarch James (Will Young) is released from the hospital and forced to move in with his son (Harold Hogan), daughter-in-law (Sandra Love Aldridge) and grandson (Dante Jones). The cantankerous and persnickety old man’s arrival is particularly despised by his grandson Tyler, with whom he must now share a bedroom. A retired doctor, James is plagued by memory gaps, and he makes it abundantly clear he’d rather be living with his other son, Jimmy, in his much nicer and much bigger house.
But that will never happen. Tyler, after a handful of grueling weeks together, lets not one, but three major secrets slip out – including the fact that he’s gay. James, stunned and repulsed by the revelation, blabs Tyler’s secret to his parents – who are likewise shocked by the news. And the result may send Tyler packing!
Coming out as a teenager is fraught with risk, as many gays and lesbians can attest. In particular, they face rejection and alienation from the people they need to love them the most – their family. Elliott’s tale, while treading familiar territory, digs beyond the histrionics and stereotypes employed by Lifetime specials and similarly themed works. Instead, the Burnetts are an imperfect family with identifiable beliefs and histories, and Elliott challenges their hearts as he sends them along their individual journeys.
It’s a heart-wrenching, but often-funny road the Burnett family travels, and it’s superbly polished by director Harry Wetzel. His characters are well conceptualized and the show is nicely paced, but it’s the body language he employs to deliver even the slightest message that especially shines. (Each gesture or touch is carefully planned and executed.)
His actors are all top notch – including Seth Amadei, who drives a pivotal scene in Act 2. But Young and Jones carry the show. Their relationship – especially early on – must be believable in order for the story to succeed. It is, and it pays off quite well in the revelatory scene in Act 1, and later – with Hogan and Aldridge – in Act 2.
Jones, making his professional debut, is a natural, instinctive actor, while Young once again proves why he truly is one of the industry’s gems.
Playwright Elliott found ONE middle-aged woman’s heart on opening night. “I would NEVER do that to MY son,” she whispered loudly late in the play. I suspect his heart-warming story grabbed many others, as well.
‘Finding the Burnett Heart’
Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit. Thursday-Sunday through May 24. $17-$20. 313-868-1347. http://www.detroitreptheatre.com