Review: ‘A Burial Place’ at The Wheel Theatre

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If you’re looking for proof that big things come in small packages, then you need look no further than the tiny black box theater where A Burial Place, produced by the Wheel Theatre Company at the DC Arts Center, is now having its all-too-brief DC debut.

Philip Kershaw (Marcus), Colton Needles (Emmett) and Alex Lew (Colby) in A Burial Place. Photo by Elizabeth Floyd.
Philip Kershaw (Marcus), Colton Needles (Emmett) and Alex Lew (Colby) in A Burial Place. Photo by Elizabeth Floyd.

The play, which will be on view for just one more weekend, is as well-crafted and performed as some of the largest big-ticket productions now being touted in downtown DC.

Set in a storage shed behind a suburban house, A Burial Place takes place on a single night in the summer, when three teenage boys—best friends since childhood—are about to have their annual sleepover. Emmett, whose family owns the house, is the host.

As the play opens, Emmett is cheerfully cleaning up the shed and setting out snacks for his friends. He is certain the others will come. Colby, who is Emmett’s former lover, is skeptical. He slouches in, funny but morose, convinced the reunion won’t happen. But Marcus, the third of the trio, bounds in, sleeping bag in hand. And so the sleepover begins.

As the three hunker down for the night, the shed resumes its role as the “clubhouse,” where the boys hung out when they were kids. (Underneath the house, we are told, is a crawl space, forbidden by the grownups, called the “dungeon.” That’s where the boys hid a time capsule, six years earlier, when they were 13.)

But now the boys are 19, and they are celebrating a childhood that has already disappeared, much like the TV set and the wood-burning stove that once existed in the shed.

Instead, there are dozens of storage boxes, containing relics of the past. There are stuffed animals and soccer balls, tennis rackets and steamer trunks. Old board games are stacked at the rear. One in particular, a battered box containing the game of “Life,” is a constant at these reunions.

The game is metaphysical, yet real. Marcus wins. Or does he? What happens between reunions?  Do these kids exist? And what exactly is in the time capsule?

You’ll have to see the play to find out. Suffice it to say that the denouement is as poignant as it is unexpected and subdued. Children grow up. Things change. And life is more than a game.

Colton Needles offers a fine performance as Emmett, the reserved young man who is the most hopeful of the three. He is the only one focused on the future. A would-be writer and actor, he is probably a stand-in for the playwright, refusing to define himself by his sexual preference.

Alex Lew, on the other hand, does the opposite. His portrayal of Colby as a gay teenager is so comical that he is often over-the-top, turning the character into a caricature. He is at once the funniest of the three, yet the least sympathetic.

Philip Kershaw (Marcus) in A Burial Place. Photo by Elizabeth Floyd.
Philip Kershaw (Marcus) in A Burial Place. Photo by Elizabeth Floyd.

Marcus is the hero of the play. His is the strongest role, both as written and as performed by Philip Kershaw, who incorporates a kind of confidence, bordering on serenity, into the part. Marcus is also the most likable of the trio.

Elizabeth Floyd, who co-founded the Wheel, does a remarkable job as both the director and the set designer of A Burial Place. In her hands, the action in the play is a reconstruction, and then a deconstruction, of a part of life. Boxes are closed, then opened, then closed again.

Jack Read, the artistic director and stage manager, works hand in hand with Floyd, keeping the characters moving in what might otherwise be a two-dimensional charade. Music, written by Kai Engle and Borrtex, rounds out the production.

A Burial Place was first performed Off-Off-Broadway in 2016. It was written by Owen Panettieri, a playwright and lyricist who is the author of a dozen plays for adults and children, and has collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda on a web series called Legally Brown.

There are just three more performances of this production at the DC Arts Center. If you’ve never been there before, you’re in for a surprise. This is an exhibition space whose stage is tucked inside a former stable and hidden behind a shopfront façade in the heart of Adams Morgan.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

A Burial Place plays through March 17, 2018, at the DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the door (cash only), or go online.