Chicago Reviews

Old love ignites again in Steppenwolf’s “What Is Left, Burns”

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association; photo by Lowell Thomas

In another worthy addition to this Year of Virtual Plays, Steppenwolf Theatre’s new Steppenwolf NOW series brings us a commissioned short play from James Ijames, author of last year’s marvelous Timeline production, Kill Move Paradise. In What Is Left, Burns, Ijames (appropriately enough for a play presented over Zoom), dives deep into the relationship between two compelling characters making contact for the first time in fifteen years.

Keith (K. Todd Freeman) is a poet and college professor who has reached the point at which he is contemplating retirement. In an out-of-the-blue email, he reaches out to a former student and mentee, Ronnie (Jon Michael Hill), with whom he has not spoken since their affair broke up all those years ago. Since then, Ronnie has gone on to write a poetry collection of his own that has made it to the NY Times Best Seller list and Keith’s personal life has more or less imploded: his wife has left him and their son will not speak with him. (It is not stated, but both of these certainly could stem from Keith’s bisexual transgressions.) His decision to contact Ronnie opens old wounds and unearths old feelings.

Whitney White directs this play with her focus on how these two men handle this video chat emotionally. While there is plenty of quick back and forth dialogue, there is also a lot of space for each of them to deal with the potential minefield of their reunion. For Keith, the sense of loss and exhaustion is almost palpable, and longer shots of him at his desk revealing the emptiness of his world intertwine with the expected computer close-ups (though even for these he seems tired and defeated). Ronnie, who has initiated this call after receiving the email, is confused and leery about its purpose. Hill, who handled his own videography, mostly keeps Ronnie’s face in a very tight shot that shows the rawness of his reactions to this conversation with a man from his past who once meant so much.

White, along with Director of Photography & Video Editor Lowell Thomas, highlights the inner conflicts of the characters through the repeated use of edgy, music video-like photography (with original music by Sound Designer Justin Ellington) that allows us to see each of them in moments of introspective, private reflection. It is a fascinating device that, although a bit jarring at first, allows both actors the opportunity for their characters to process what is happening in their lives. 

This brief, personal play is a strong first offering in Steppenwolf NOW’s virtual season, which will feature five other plays of varying lengths in the months to come. What Is Left, Burns is a simple but compelling piece of work featuring two dynamic performers dealing with the complexity of human relationships. It’s pure Steppenwolf, and it’s good to see them back.

What Is Left, Burns is now available for streaming online through November from Steppenwolf Theatre. The show runs approximately 20 minutes with no intermission. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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