Bright Burning: a conflagration in the class divide. A review

Bright Burning by Colleen Murphy, Studio Theatre production. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls,

A sense of absurdity hangs over the group portrait in constant motion in Colleen Murphy’s Bright Burning, currently trashing a beautiful set on the Timms Centre stage.

A kid (Jake Tkaczyk) comes down a marble staircase lugging a grandfather clock.“Can’t take that on the LRT,” another kid notes. “We’ll get a taxi,” says a third. They aren’t kidding — well, not exactly.

Later, amid the jumble of 24-carat vibrators, TV monitors, candelabra and cases of vintage wine that the awestruck looters score, they will actually consider the possibility of dismantling a Bosendorfer grand piano. 

Any gang invasion in which the participants arrive on the bus and play dress-up feels somehow doomed in advance. Which is exactly what the new play — commissioned from the award-winning playwright specially for the 12 actors of the U of A’s graduating BFA actors — explores: the futility of upward mobility for the working poor.

They are foul-mouthed and dangerous, the six hopped-up kids who arrive at a suburban Edmonton mansion to score enough stuff to pay a drug debt. For Jan Selman’s production, designer Robert Shannon, Lee Livingstone and LLARS Design create and light a classic double-staircase architecture, opulently finished and topped by an abstract chandelier, which figures in the action and is not a reference to a certain well-known musical.

Beyond paying off Fleur (Jaimi Reese), the hard-ass dealer who shows up with the stoned-out girlfriend she pimps out (Chayla Day), their dreams are modest. Lou (Alex Dawkins), who works as a shlepper in a vet clinic, wants to buy a dog. Ari (Jordan Buhat) thinks of buying a guitar case “with my new wealth portfolio” and buying his sick mom jewellery from the shopping channel. Emily (Sarah Ormandy), a chatterbox savant with a photographic memory for arcane information and no self-editing mechanism, wants to create art cards.

But the insight of Murphy’s play is that, modesty notwithstanding, their dreams are outlandish, absurd, unattainable, lost in the vast unbridgeable gulf between the rich and the poor. They are scrambling outsiders. And they’re looking in with a combination of wonder, and mounting rage.

As Selman’s mesmerizingly hyperactive, hard-driving, sensory-overload production discloses, their exclusion isn’t a discovery for the characters. It’s re-discovery of something they knew all along, a sort of sinking feeling about invisibility speeded up into a frantic high. Bright Burning, incidentally, is a rarity, a play that contains meth, but isn’t really about drugs.

Selman’s actors attack, and convincingly, Murphy’s staccato bursts of overlapping dialogue, non sequiturs, tangents, and furious fragments. It’s often very funny: Philip Geller gets (and deserves) big laughs as a deadpan pizza delivery guy with anxiety issues, who arrives in the midst of the chaos. “I can’t stay here it’s too stressful,” he says. With bleak hilarity, the most menacing of the characters, J the dealer’s enforcer (Jacob Holloway), offers advice from his “suicide prevention group.”

Bright Burning has the feel of a black comedy teetering on the edge of something tragic. The only pause, for example, isn’t really a pause at all; it’s fast and furious playtime in the boat — really! — they’ve dragged from the garage into the mansion. It’s an absurd, and somehow touching, image. Where would you like to sail? the landlocked ask each other to imagine, abandoning hostilities temporarily to play, like kids, with the idea of possibility.

The arrival of the owner’s daughters, Ruby (Emily Howard) and her kid sister Sam (Emma Houghton) ups the stakes. The former will argue that entitlement cuts both ways, that being rich isn’t a choice and that, in any case, wealth doesn’t cause poverty. The American playwright Wallace Shawn, in The Fever, would beg to differ; his protagonist is shaken to the core by the thought that his own privilege is actually underwritten by poverty.

Sam, the little rich kid in this crowd, has a certain amusing clarity: self-interest. “Yeah, steal anything you want but leave us with our lives and our futures because I’m going to camp today for two weeks.”

The texture of the production, and its performances, feel full. And Murphy expertly structures the play so that characters gradually emerge from the group portrait to be dimensional individuals, each with slight variations in speediness. 

Cast of Bright Burning by Colleen Murphy, a Studio Theatre production. Photo by Ed Ellis.

It’s one of those plays that tests the inevitability of its storytelling with a horrifying ending that would seem outlandish — if there hadn’t been the play first. It’s a structure, an escalation, that requires duration, and repetition. And both begin to seem a little over-extended and relentless late in the production — which is to say you start to notice them. The performances, though, anchored by Dawkins as Lou and Ormandy as the fatally visionary Emily, remain fierce, committed, and fresh.  

And a play custom-made for its youthful actors, that began with entrances in the dark, ends with exits in the dark.


Bright Burning

Theatre: Studio Theatre

Written by: Colleen Murphy

Directed by: Jan Selman

Starring: Alex Dawkins, Marc Ludwig, Sarah J. Culkin, Sarah Ormandy Jake Tkaczyk, Jordan Buhat, Jaimi Reese, Jacob Holloway, Chayla Day, Philip Geller, Emily Howard, Emma Houghton

Where: Timms Centre for the Arts, U of A, 112th St. and 87th Ave.

Running: through April 8

Tickets: 780-492-2495,

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