‘This is Our Youth’ offers rewarding journey into nottoo-distant past with youthful tale marked by timeless themes.
PAWTUCKET – Kenneth Lonergan’s play “This Is Our Youth” is set in 1982, the Reagan years, but the themes are more specific to an age than an era.
Youthful rebellion clouded by disillusionment and uncertainty are part of just about everyone’s life, and that’s what Lonergan, who received an Academy Award for his original screenplay for “Manchester by the Sea,” explores.
The themes are familiar, but Lonergan’s writing is contemporary, his characters’ attitudes feel modern – and the three actors in Burbage Theatre’s current production are of an age to have a particular empathy. Those qualities add up to a production that is fascinating and affecting.
The story centers on the difficult friendship between New Yorkers Dennis Ziegler and Warren Straub. Dennis has an inflated opinion of himself and is a bully. Warren is his antithesis and the convenient object of the bullying. His talent seems to be making bad decisions, including getting kicked out of his father’s home and tak- ing $15,000 of the wealthy man’s money with him.
Despite a poor track record on relationships with women, Warren is interested in an attractive fashion-school student. Dennis enables a meeting, and Warren awkwardly takes it from there.
Through their interactions and confessional moments, the play delves into the characters’ back stories, their relationships with their parents, with each other, and their reactions to the materialism of the times. Fortunately, the play doesn’t telegraph where it’s going, and there is honest insight into the angst of these young people. Moreover, Lonergan writes authentic sounding, albeit expletive-filled, dialogue.
There is humor, but it’s the kind that makes you shake your head rather than laugh boisterously. Director Allison Crews’ strength is in her depth of understanding for her characters, showcased last spring in Burbage’s excellent production of “Thinner Than Water,” and once again, she leads the actors through plausible changes. For example, James Lucey’s Dennis is irritating and off-putting initially, so it’s surprising when, after a turn of events shakes his world, we can feel sympathy for the character.
Cassidy McCartan gives a nuanced portrayal of Jessica, the fashion student trying to be more sophisticated than she is while sorting through what others think of her – and what she thinks of herself.
Brooks Shatraw goes on the most substantive journey as Warren, from uneasy and dejected to finding a modicum of self-esteem. I hope Shatraw, a senior at the University of Rhode Island, isn’t insulted to be described as having a baby face, because it’s perfect for the role, and his portrayal is transformative.
The Burbage Theatre Company was founded by a group of Rhode Island College graduates and is in only its eighth season. The actors’ youth suits “This Is Our Youth,” but their work is mature and can be appreciated by people of any generation.
“This Is Our Youth” is running alternately through Feb. 23 with “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” a one-character monologue penned by award-winning playwright Will Eno and delivered by Burbage’s artistic director Jeff Church, through Feb. 24. Tickets are $25 general admission, and high school students are admitted for free to any performance that isn’t sold out. Buy tickets online at www.burbagetheatre.org; for information, email email@example.com or leave a message at (401) 484-0355.