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Theater Review: Family Love and Euthanasia

'Burkie' explores a dying man's relationship with his son and daughter

(c) Los Angeles Times

May 20, 1994



By Robert Koehler

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — 1984.

A play opens, first off-Broadway, then in Philadelphia. It explores the trian gular relationship of a father dying of pancreatic cancer, his doting son and not-so-doting daughter. The father wills himself to die. The reviews make little of this element.

1994.

A play opens in previews tonight in North Hollywood at Theatre Exchange, care of Interact Theatre Company. It explores a father-son-daughter relationship. The father, suffering from pancreatic cancer, wills himself to die.

Same play. Different decades.

Bruce Graham wrote his first produced play, "Burkie," when few knew who Dr. Jack Kevorkian was, when doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia were hardly topics for civilized conversation. He now says he never intended that issue to dominate the listener's mind as it is sorting through the conflicted emotions between father Ed Burke, son Jon and daughter Jess.

"His desire to bring an end to things just follows from a life that's shutting down," says Graham by telephone from Philadelphia, where he is resident playwright at the Philadelphia Festival Theatre. Graham will soon be a big East Valley theater presence when, during the "Burkie" run, Burbank-based Alliance Repertory Company opens another Graham drama, "Minor Demons."

"The issues of euthanasia and the rest are never even mentioned," says Eddie Jones, returning to the role of Ed, which he originated in the off-Broadway production. He is sitting in the front row of the theater with actor Denise Bessette, who plays Jess, and director Kevin Kelley, and considering the scenes they have just finished rehearsing. "It's kinda buried in the play, but you know today's audiences will be thinking about it."

Jess, overcompensating for not attending to her father's physical decline while growing her sports-equipment business 2,000 miles away in Phoenix, is convinced that a little desert sun therapy will turn things around for Ed. "But his illness has gone way past that," Bessette says. "She will never capitulate, but as I've thought her through, it's no longer about some all-consuming guilt. It's about saving him.

"But people feel differently now about all of this, that it's best to die with dignity and avoid every last-ditch measure. Now, she has become un-PC, and it'll be interesting how she's accepted by the audience."

"Jess does all of the wrong moves for all the right reasons," Kelley says, "which makes this play especially human and painful."

The just-finished rehearsal period appeared painful as well, with Kelley going over minute details with Jones and Bessette.

*

Does he always take such a micro approach--this director who, in the past, has specialized in such macro dramatists as Shakespeare for the Shakespeare/LA company?

"No, no," he quickly says. "There have been many days here with Eddie, Denise, Steven (Culp, playing Jon) and Buck (Kartalian, as neighborhood friend Dom) when we've taken scenes in big stretches. Other days, I'll get down to very particular things like actions and timing. How I feel about a scene, how it's developing, will change my directing approach from day to day."

The "Burkie" company has enjoyed both the comparatively luxurious rehearsal time of five weeks (compared to the customary three-to-four week process typical in Los Angeles theater), and the added sense of, as Bessette puts it, "making this production our own."

"Burkie" marks one of the first times in Interact's four-year history that company members have initiated a production of their own.

"Burkie" is very different from Graham's subsequent work. Due to Graham's position as a resident playwright, Bessette says, "he is able to really crank out work, but most of it isn't traditional family drama like this play, but really dark, harsh stuff."

More like "Minor Demons," says Graham, 37, who says he has a darker streak than is exhibited in "Burkie," where "I was dealing with things close to my own life."

"For sure, 'Burkie' is the most personal thing I've written. I never told my parents about it, and then my dad read the reviews and called me and said, 'Why do I feel like I'm reading my damned obituary?' . . . But this shouldn't be taken as an autobiographical play . . . There's a rivalry going on between brother and sister, but that doesn't exist in my life. Jon and I are in no way alike."

Still, the old Philadelphia streets of "Burkie" are very much those of Graham's neighborhood. "I'll never leave Philly, no way," says Graham. "I mean, I had an offer to join the staff of 'Roseanne.' But that meant moving to L.A. Not a chance."


WHERE AND WHEN AND WHAT: "Burkie," Location: Interact Theatre Company at Theatre Exchange, 11855 Hart St., North Hollywood. Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 3 p.m. Sundays. Previews tonight through Sunday. Regular run begins May 27. Ends June 19. Price: $10. Call: (818) 773-7862.

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