Port City Playhouse is doing Lanford Wilson's "Burn This," and community theater does not get any better. Port City keeps to an ascending standard of acting and technical values in its productions, and its seasons are responsible for more than a few other Northern Virginia theaters taking up challenging work.
"Burn This" is Wilson's latest play. He won the Pulitzer Prize for "Talley's Folly" and Obies for "The Hot L Baltimore," and "The Mound Builders."
The play has four characters. Anna, a dancer and choreographer, has shared a loft in Manhattan with Robby, a gifted young dancer (who has just been killed in a boating accident before the play begins) and another gay gentleman, Larry. She has been having a rather tepid romance with Burton, a successful screenwriter.
In the first scene, Anna recounts the horror of Robby's funeral, where she discovered that his family had never seen him dance, and appeared not to know he was gay.
The loss of Robby makes her realize that she has had no personal life: she devoted herself to Robby as his dancing partner, and to teaching dance, and suddenly realizes she is in her thirties.
Late in the day, with Anna still exhausted, in bursts Pale, Robby's older brother. His language is shocking, vivid, cruel and packed with unprintable words. He is drunk and profoundly upset. Anna, highly confused and distressed herself, pities him.
The two become lovers. Wilson makes it quite clear that both people are badly shaken up -- and what has surfaced in both is a devouring need for love. (Pale is married and has children, though the family is clearly estranged; they have been living in Florida for some time.)
Anna tries to part with Pale. She even tries to interest herself again in the perfectly nice but passionless Burton, and Pale tries to stay away from Anna, too.
Finally, it is Larry, a character who has no relationship himself, who brings the two back together. Larry provides most of the evening's comedy -- he is witty throughout, and his descriptions of Christmas in Detroit, and of New Year's Eve spent in a plane circling New York City, are side-splitting.
Gloria Dugan turns in another fine job directing "Burn This." The issues are clear, her staging is fluid and easy and, again, she has given her actors both freedom and focus. Best of all, she has helped them all shine.
David Jourdan makes Pale possible: a fraught, battered and embittered man who nevertheless finds himself capable of exquisite tenderness and even tears.
Harriet Barrett is lovely as the emerging Anna: at first fragile and terrified, then discovering strength and depth she didn't know she had. The emotional depth Barrett reveals in the final scene is extraordinary.
Larry Daniele balances Burton beautifully: a man who will succeed, but could never lose his heart.
David B. Frable is a wonderful Larry: His devotion to Anna is palpable, his frivolity delicious, his somber understanding of the passion that will change their lives utterly real. The attractive set was designed by Jack Harrell and lighted by Dick Schwab.
"Burn This," Port City Playhouse through Sunday. Minnie Howard Auditorium, 3801 W. Braddock Rd., Alexandria. For mature audiences only. For reservations, call 703-838-9303.