Steppenwolf Theatre Company launches its Steppenwolf NOW digital platform with What Is Left, Burns, a commissioned world premiere from Philadelphia-based playwright James Ijames. Despite the galvanic title, the brief two-hander explores relationships and the weight of personal history with a somewhat tender gaze.
COVID-19 interrupted America’s introduction to Ijames. When theaters closed en masse back in March, Steppenwolf, the venerable Chicago institution, was preparing a production of The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, a breakout work for the writer (who also acts, directs, and teaches at Villanova) that was first seen at Philly’s now-defunct Flashpoint Theatre. With What Is Left, Burns, Ijames and director Whitney White—who was to have helmed Miz Martha—give audiences a taste of what’s hopefully to come when performing arts institutions can safely reopen.
Then and now
Although Ijames doesn’t specifically reference the pandemic in his 20-minute script—and references to travel, kids in college, and visiting loved ones in assisted living suggest a period of freer movement—he takes his cues from the current moment. The action revolves around a FaceTime conversation between Keith (K. Todd Freeman), a revered poet approaching retirement, and his former student Ronnie (Jon Michael Hill), an up-and-coming writer.
The conversation swirls with rhythms of pleasant banality. We learn that Keith is divorced, while Ronnie is in the first flush of success following the publication of his debut collection. Although it takes time for the words to be pointedly said, it’s clear these men were lovers in the past, and the aftermath of their separation still hangs heavily in their interaction. But that is about the story’s only textbook element.
Tension and compassion
Ijames and White upend the expectation that two former flames reconnecting after a long silence will be filled with recrimination and rancor. Instead, they encourage the viewer to listen in for what is left unsaid. (Being a poet, Keith calls this “the space between stanzas”). There is clearly some anger and love lost between the men, which White’s direction conveys through a steady sense of rising tension. Yet even in the moments when their interaction turns sharp, a lingering compassion remains evident. Keith and Ronnie have hurt each other in the past, but there isn’t much desire to repeat that in the present.
Steppenwolf is an ensemble theater company, and the easy rapport between Freeman and Hill counts for a lot here, especially since their scenes were recorded in separate locations. They have no trouble projecting the baggage that comes with a long-ago love affair, and their near-wordless final scene, which I won’t spoil, is a stunner. Their characters each move smartly from existing within their well-defined roles—august mentor and gifted student—to projecting their insecurities and the vulnerability they’d rather keep hidden. Hill, in particular, has a gift for imbuing even the most throwaway line with multiple layers of meaning; his piercing brown eyes, often seen in close-up, also speak volumes.
The debut we got
The digital production values are of a high quality. Editor and director of photography Lowell Thomas strikes a balance between visual polish and an accurate graininess you might expect from the unreliable nature of video calls. I loved a moment in which Hill’s Ronnie, taken aback by an offhand comment from Freeman’s Keith, loses grip of his phone in temporary disbelief. Justin Ellington creates a soundscape of classical music, jazz, and background noise that complements the dialogue and performances without overwhelming them. The only questionable element are interstitial shots of Freeman and Hill in vibrantly colored tableaux, which feel overwrought next to the naturalness of the text.
What Is Left, Burns may not have been the debut Ijames and Steppenwolf imagined, but it bodes well for both the artist and institution in the current moment. I look forward to seeing what both will do as they continue to harness creativity in the face of uncertainty. This quiet, elliptical work will burn brightly in your mind long after the screen fades to black.
Image description: A blurry, close-up image of two men, one on the left panel and one on the right panel, with a dividing graphic that looks like torn paper or a flame in between. The left panel has a bright blue wash and the right panel has a bright red wash.
What, When, Where
What Is Left, Burns. By James Ijames. Directed by Whitney White. Steppenwolf Theatre Company/Steppenwolf NOW. Streaming through August 31, 2021. Steppenwolf NOW memberships are $75 ($50 for essential workers, artists, students, and educators) and include access to six virtual stage productions released between November 2020 and June 2021. Steppenwolf.org/now.
What Is Left, Burns has closed captioning and audio description options.