The love of fathers and sons doesn’t get much attention these days. Blame Ibsen, if you will, for showing us in Ghosts a son who inherited syphilis from his libertine old man, or Star Wars' Luke Skywalker’s pop is Darth Vader.
In fact, I can only think of one well-known work of contemporary literature that reminds us of the need boys have for their fathers, and that’s Theodore Roethke’s much-anthologized poem “My Papa’s Waltz,” about a kid being danced around a kitchen by his drunk dad. Sure, in Roethke’s poem, the boy’s mother’s “countenance could not unfrown itself.” But at the end the boy is “still clinging to your shirt” — still loving the old guy. Thousands of readers have understood.
Well, now freeFall Theatre is bringing us The Burnt Part Boys, a musical all about father/son yearning, and it’s a mostly successful venture even if it doesn’t entirely fulfill its potential. Boys is about three West Virginia young men — and, eventually, a young woman — whose fathers all died in a mining accident in 1952, and who, 10 years later, head out for the “Burnt Part” where the disaster took place.
The immediate cause is the news that the mining company is about to reopen the hallowed area, a decision that young Pete (Cameron Kubly) sees as a desecration of his father’s memory. So he steals a little dynamite, and with his friend Dusty (Joseph Flynn) — whose father was uninvolved — sets out to blow up the Burnt Part before it can be reopened. When Pete’s brother Jake (Nick Lerew) gets wind of this project, he sets off with buddy Chet (Nick Fitzer) to stop Pete before he hurts someone.
The way to the Burnt Part is treacherous, and one unexpected encounter occurs when Pete and Dusty stumble upon Frances (Katie Berger), a rifle-toting girl whose father also was one of the killed. By Act Two, Jake and Chet are chasing after the three figures, and the survival of any of them is by no means a good bet.
The play has a lot of strengths: the acting is top-notch, and the sense of camaraderie among the boys is exceedingly persuasive. It’s moving to see not only the boys — and Frances — but also their deceased fathers (Jim Sorensen, Patrick Ryan Sullivan, and Chris Vaughn) on stage, talking and singing: death hasn’t reduced the older mens’ presence in their sons’ minds. Another virtue is Matt Davis’ wonderfully versatile set, which falls and rises and allows us to believe that we’re watching a perilous excursion filled with natural and artificial obstacles. Eric Davis’ direction is unabashedly open-hearted, and the six-piece band, led by Michael Raabe, couldn’t be better. As usual, freeFall offers spectators a first-class production.
But there are defects in the book (by Mariana Elder) and music (by Chris Miller) which acting and directing can’t solve. Most importantly, the finale — which I won’t spoil here by detailing — just never has the cathartic impact that it needs in order to justify everything that’s led to it. Then there’s the problem with the heroic figures from the movie The Alamo which Pete sees at various times. Yes, we can infer that these encounters with Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie (all played by Sullivan) are the results of Pete’s need for some father figure, any father figure. But the heroes’ appearances are so brief, their significance never really registers.
As for Miller’s music (lyrics by Nathan Tysen), it’s generally bland and forgettable: only two of the many songs would I want to hear again, and the bluegrass element is at times so attenuated, the play could be taking place in New York rather than West Virginia. Add up all these problems and the result is an unusual, often touching modern musical that never takes that final step to our most secret, most naked place of emotion. We end up admiring the show when we should be deeply feeling it.
And still the show is worthy. I defy any theatergoer to see The Burnt Part Boys and not be stimulated to reflect on one’s own relationship with one’s father or child. Which is to say, if Boys is only pretty good theater, it’s excellent psychology — on an often-ignored subject.
Which is reason enough to give it a chance.
Through July 6 at freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. $29-$44. Students, teachers, seniors, military: $26-$41. 727-498-5205, freefalltheatre.com