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Theater Review (LA): Finding the Burnett Heart

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Tyler Burnett (Joel Johnstone) is a teenager whose 70-year-old grandfather, James (James Handy), is temporarily moved into his room after accidentally setting his own house on fire. The old man is a cantankerous bigot and Tyler is an aspiring artist whose ambitions are condemned by his grandfather as “fruity.” As a result, their arguments are frequent and vociferous.

Tyler’s mother, Grace (Colleen McGrann), is at the end of her rope, constantly playing the mediator but getting no support from her ineffectual husband, James’ son Robert (Jeff L. Williams), who just wants to keep peace in their household. But Robert, who’d spent his youth in the shadow of his favored older brother, Jimmy — who died of a heart attack at a young age — is determined that Tyler will receive the affection and support his father had always denied him. And when he sees that the old man is going down the same path with his son, he begins to find his voice.

James finally pushes Tyler too far with his bigoted talk, and the boy lets slip that the old man’s beloved Jimmy was gay. He inadvertently outs himself, too, and James rushes to report the news to Tyler’s parents. Robert assures his son that his feelings for him won’t change, but Grace explodes in a rage of religious indignation and intolerance, feeling betrayed that her husband won’t stand by her side on the matter.

Tyler’s coming out and Grace’s violent reaction make James begin to regret how cruelly he’d treated Robert over the years, and he begins to try to make amends. As the Burnett men start the process of healing, the still-outraged Grace becomes even more of an outsider.

Paul Elliott’s play has its moments, but it feels rather dated even though it’s set in the present time. That said, the central performances by Johnstone and Handy are excellent. Handy’s transformation from curmudgeon to caring grandfather is nicely realized, and Johnstone is convincing as the smart and resilient Tyler. Williams is rather stiff in early scenes but fares better as his character grows. Conversely, McGrann is naturalistic in the beginning, but from the moment she charges into Tyler’s room brandishing a bible and literally beating her son with it, her character becomes a cartoon.

Technically, the production is fine, with Andrew Menzies’ set nicely representing a teenager’s bedroom that’s been split in half generationally, and Juliet Klancar’s lighting effects providing effective transitions in time.

Finding the Burnett Heart plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. through May 27 at the Elephant Stages-Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Reservations can be made online or by calling (323) 962-0046.

Photo: Josh Brazile

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About Kurt Gardner

Writer, critic and marketing expert whose passion for odd culture knows no bounds.