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One of the lovely things about Burning Coal Theatre Company's intimate Murphey School Auditorium is that it allows the patron to examine, in exacting detail, the beautiful sets on which the company stages its works. For their opening 2016-17 production, Burning Coal has chosen a play that has been around awhile, but still packs a major punch: David Hare's Skylight. The work examines two lonely people who clearly love each other, but cannot come together. It is a work of delicious possibilities as two old lovers come together again. Will they be able to restore the love that they left behind?
Designed by Elizabeth Newton, Skylight's set is the comfortable, if just a touch seedy, flat of schoolteacher Kyra Hollis (Emily Barrett Rieder). It is set in one of North London's less progressive sections, but the trappings make the open living-room/kitchen quite livable, with lovely woven rugs, comfortable chairs, and ubiquitous piles of books tucked into every cranny. Clearly the teacher who lives here has made it a place to come home to, which is exactly what she does at the top of the performance.
Bundled up against the cold of the deepest winter, Kyra enters, burdened with books and files and some groceries. Thus laden, she leaves the door standing open as she drops her load at the kitchen table and leaves to draw a bath. A young man to enter behind her, and he stands awkwardly in the doorway, wondering what to do next, as Kyra reenters. He frightens her badly. Edward Sargeant (Matthew Tucker) has come to tell Kyra about his father, the man she left behind when she bolted about three years ago. Kyra had been a friend of the family, working in one of the couple's restaurants and constantly being there for both Edward's parents, Alice and Tom (Jerome Davis), and Edward as well. In a troubling scene, he pours out what has transpired since she left: Alice had contracted cancer and died about a year ago; since that time Tom has become a recluse, raging about the house, ordering in his meals, and generally bullying and berating Edward. Tom has succeeded in driving his son from the house; now Edward has come to plead with Kyra to help because his father is in a terrible state.
What we come to glean is that, in the middle of what seems to be a mutually satisfying relationship, Kyra simply up and left, without explanation and without telling anyone where she had gone. It is a situation that has haunted both Edward and Tom, and part of what Edward has come to tell her is that she is partially responsible. He needs to know why she left. It is not a question she is readily able to answer.
The following evening, as Kyra is preparing her dinner, the buzzer goes off impatiently. Kyra is not pleased to find that it is Tom. At first she refuses him, but finally does buzz him up. Wrapped up in a muffler and overcoat, Tom comes bearing gifts – liquor, as it turns out, which he proceeds to consume as the play progresses.
The rest of Skylight is the attempt of these two people to come back together after a long and painful absence. It is not an easy thing to do. There is a pain that exists between them, and it is palpable. The question is whether or not these two lovers can rekindle their love. The answer is not at all a given one.
Burning Coal Artistic Director Jerome Davis steps onto the stage as an actor in Skylight, something he has not done in five years at Burning Coal. Tom is wealthy, has always been successful in business. He cannot understand why Kyra would leave everything they had to come here, to this drafty flat in a seedy part of the city, and seem to prefer it to what they had. Tom is full of conflicting emotions, and Davis wore them all visibly.
Ultimately, Skylight belongs to Kyra. It is her life that the two discuss, what was as well as what is. Kyra had been with the Sergeants since she was eighteen; now in her mid-twenties, she is just becoming her own person. Tom's mission is to win her back, but she is not the same person who left three years ago. As Tom and Kyra battle over her current lifestyle, Davis and Rieder masterfully handled the argument as it came to a fever pitch at the apex of Act II. By this time, Kyra has reached her limit. She gives Tom such an expert dressing-down that Rieder earned spontaneous applause opening night.
As is often the case with a Burning Coal show, we find we cannot but marvel at how well these actors inhabit their roles. Watching Rieder as she moved about the apartment, it seemed she had lived there for some time; we did not see an actress on a set but a woman in her home. Rieder became Kyra. The same held true for Davis: we saw Sergeant, a man who commands his own life and who has come to command Kyra. It is to these actors' credit that we did not see them at all. We saw only those characters they portray so well.
Skylight is a character study of two people at a crossroads; do they come together or come apart? It is the responsibility of these actors to bring to us two people who obviously have a long shared history. It is the fact that we believed their history, that we believed their interaction, that was the mark of the fine actors in this production. Burning Coal and director John Gulley have brought a stunning play to magnificent life. You owe it to yourself to see this one.
Skylight continues through Sunday, October 23. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.