The tragedies of the ancient Greeks, much like the plays of Shakespeare, possess a malleable quality that might well be a sign of their greatness. For even if they are many centuries old these dramas can be retrofitted to suggest how certain problems continue to bedevil society, bringing out both the best and worst in human nature.
The latest example of such creative appropriation can be found in “The Burials,” the world premiere Steppenwolf for Young Adults production in which playwright Caitlin Parrish seizes hold of the basic outline of Sophocles’ “Antigone” to explore the response of a powerful family to a wholly contemporary high school massacre and its aftermath.
In Sophocles’ “Antigone,” the title character — one of two daughters of the disgraced King Oedipus — dares to seek a respectable burial for her brother, despite the decree of the newly named King Creon that he is to be neither buried nor mourned, on pain of death by stoning.
Coburn Goss (from left), Kristina Valada-Viars, Olivia Cygan and Becca Savoy in “The Burials,” a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
In Parrish’s play, the family in crisis is led by Ryan Martin (a coolly polished Coburn Goss), a junior “moderate Republican” U.S. senator whose wife died eight years earlier. Martin has raised three children who are close in age if not temperament: oldest daughter Sophie (Olivia Cygan), her sister Chloe (Becca Savoy) and their brother, Ben (Matt Farabee). And on the very day that Ryan wins the primary and believes he is on his way to another victory in the election, Ben goes on one of those now all-too-familiar rampages at his high school, killing 16 students and a teacher, and injuring others.
When: Through Oct. 22
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 ($15 student ID)
Info: (312) 335-1650;
Run time: 1 hour and
40 minutes with no intermission
As it happens, Ben’s father, a former soldier, is a strong gun advocate and (as in several well-documented real-life cases) he even taught his children how to use guns, many of which he kept in his home. In addition, he could not have been unaware that Ben was an alienated, brooding kid who had mental health issues. (Ben, it should be noted, is seen only on his aptly creepy “farewell” video, in which Farabee is uncannily good.)
Not surprisingly, in the wake of the massacre, the Martin family is met with considerable hostility. But Ryan remains determined to hold on to his Senate seat and is more than willing to be interviewed on television by the local anchor, Zoe Lucas (stylish work by Kristina Valada-Viars), who is clearly opportunistic and also seems to share a bit of sexual chemistry with the politician. Despite the carnage, he not only refuses to alter his opinion about guns, but he makes the familiar case that if teachers had been armed they could have stopped Ben and prevented many deaths.
Martin’s daughter, Sophie, is appalled by this idea. She also is tormented by the fact that Ben was buried in an unmarked grave outside the town, and essentially disowned by his father, when instead he should have been recognized as “a broken human being” who needed help. And after she and her rather complacent sister put on a false front on TV, and after she faces hostility from some of her schoolmates, Sophie decides to rebel against her father. She also visits one of the wounded survivors, Brianna (a touching Aurora Adachi-Winter), who is exceptionally forgiving, and wishes she had been “nicer” to Ben.
All this leads to one of the more unusual post-prom burial ground ceremonies that should not be disclosed here, but is clearly meant to have a healing effect.
In attendance at that rite are Janette (Stephanie Andrea Barron), the good friend who has continued to stand by Sophie; Janette’s boyfriend, Jayden (Joel Boyd), who believes he was treated badly by the police when they were clearing the school; and Greg (Ty Olwin), who was initially furious at the Martin family, especially because his lifelong friend was among those murdered by Ben.
Along the way, Parrish makes all the politically correct points, but the play — designed primarily for school audiences, but also open to the public for a number of weekend shows — should be the source of much classroom discussion.
The show, under the sharp direction of Erica Weiss, is ideally cast, with Courtney O’Neill’s aptly antiseptic set, J.R. Lederle’s lighting, Matt Chapman’s sound and Joseph A. Burke’s projection design all expertly integrated.
The greatest tragedy here is how familiar it all is, and how one character’s comment that it is sure to happen again sounds less like an eerie prophecy than an indisputable fact.