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Theater Review: A Kiss Before Dying

"Burkie" tells the story of a terminally ill father and a family in need of healing.
Humor provides strong medicine.

(c) Los Angeles Times

June 10, 1994

By T.H. McCulloh

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — "Burkie" was the affectionate nickname Janie Burke used when speaking to her husband, Ed. But now Janie is gone, after a long, painful, harrowing battle against cancer. Now it's Ed's turn.

South Philly plumber Ed doesn't make Janie's choices in dealing with his own terminal cancer. He'd watched her suffer needlessly through treatment after useless treatment. Ed wants to do it with dignity, without causing pain for himself or his two grown children. The right to that choice is at the center of Bruce Graham's simple, powerful drama at Interact Theatre, and the consideration of the subject is more vital today than when it premiered a decade ago.

There is also a lesson to be learned in Graham's treatment of the deep affection between blustering Ed and his faltering son Jon. But don't get the wrong idea. There is plenty of humor in this family, and that's a third lesson. Although Ed hasn't long to go, he and Jon have learned that having a sense of humor is a great healer, not of cancer but of fear and wasted guilt.

Director Kevin Kelley sees these three layers in the play, naturally and carefully weaves them in and out of each other and allows each its moment in the patterns of the strong dramatic fabric of the play. He balances naturalism and strong theatricality with ease.

Eddie Jones, who created the role of Burkie in the original Philadelphia production and played it in New York, repeats the characterization here. From Ed's bluster to his mental and emotional distraction, from his capricious sense of fun to his craftsman's affirmation of a thing correctly done, Jones hits each note impeccably.

Ed's love for his son belies the stereotypical blue-collar parental attitude. His daughter Jess was the athlete, and Ed has the trophies to prove it. But Jon, who has always wanted to play the piano, has Ed's heart.

They understand each other, and they've honed their ping-pong punch lines about Ed's illness into a fine art. As Ed and Jon parry and thrust, Jones and Steven Culp as Jon effortlessly develop an aura of heartbreaking honesty in the relationship.

Culp has the most intricate and difficult role in the piece, and the detail and delicacy of his myriad shifts of emphasis give the production its solid foundation.

When he breaks down under his sister's unthinking attitude toward Ed's fate, when in Ed's imagination he becomes for a moment the soothing, gentle Janie, Culp is riveting.

There is a villain in the piece. Ed's daughter, in from Phoenix, newly pregnant, about to open a second trendy ski shop with her husband, is riddled with guilt and intent on taking Ed back with her to a Phoenix clinic where they can provide all the newest treatments.

She is self-involved, short-tempered and blinded to the reality of Ed's wishes. Denise Bessette does the improbable in making Jess likable enough to warrant the affection both Ed and Jon shower on her. Bringing a good feel of South Philly into this microcosmic world, Buck Kartalian is totally charming as Ed's retired friend who can't help nudging around the neighborhood.

Robert W. Zentis' setting looks very South Philly, especially in Cheryl Waters' warm, subtle lighting, and an insightful sound design by John Rubinstein skillfully balances the jagged classic jazz Ed loved, which lingers in Jon's memory, with the impressive tape of Jon's last appearance in a piano competition.

Where and When What: "Burkie." Location: Interact Theatre, 11855 Hart St., North Hollywood. When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 19. Price: $10. Call: (818) 773-7862

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