Finding the Burnett Heart

Runs Til May 27th at the Lillian Theater, Los Angeles

By Dale Reynolds, Senior Theater Critic

“Family love is messy, clinging, and of an annoying and repetitive pattern…like bad wallpaper.”  Nietzsche.

Paul Elliott has written a surprisingly strong drama about a dysfunctional family (is there any other kind in theatre?) who must confront their inner-demons once the untouchable subject of homosexuality rears itself.

Not wanting to give away the surprises that dot this fine, if slightly over-written, play, we meet the family Burnett:  Grandfather James (James Handy), 40-year-old son, Robert (Jeff L. Williams), daughter-in-law, Grace (Coleen Renee McGrann), and the almost-seventeen grandson, Tyler (Joel Johnstone).  Earlier in the month, James had accidently set fire to his home and has moved, temporarily, into the bedroom of his intensely private grandson.   The two spar unceasingly, not helped by the fundamentalist Christianity of Grace.

It’s when one of the males’ alternative-sexuality comes to the fore, that the hysteria of religious intolerance fuels Elliott’s script.  It is unfair to give away any more of the taut story, but suffice it to say, unbending religiosity does not come off well.

Elliott has spent valuable time in developing his characters so that when the rising tide of action kicks into high gear, all the characters come to the fore, decisively and intelligently.  His play really holds attention as each character defends, changes, attacks, etc, in his or her own way.  If there is any small niggle, it has to do with the mother’s unbending fanaticism on her religious fundamentals that had to have caused trouble in the family before this serious crisis. but we never hear of it.

The title comes, in part, from a Burnett family bad-gene that causes heart failure in the men, far earlier than you’d expect.  It adds tension to his already tense script, which isn’t a bad thing.  But it also suggests that a heart can change from fear and hate to love, if given the opportunity.

Thank director Jeremy Aldridge for pulling out all the stops with his uniformly strong cast.  Handy, as with all of them, is a veteran actor with the ability to get subtle when necessary, finding needed humor in his elderly man’s concerns for his family.  Same with Williams, as a concerned parent, and Johnston as a smart young man who knows his own mind.  McGrann, in a difficult role, does manage to keep our attention and our pity for her character’s narrowness.

Andrew Menzies’ set design was functional, if uninteresting.  Keeping it shabby was intentional (it is a teen boy’s room, remember), but never varied.  Jessica Olson’s costumes are perfectly pitched to each character’s personality and are never flashy, although McGrann has to have been a designer’s dream, with her slender figure and lovely face.  Just an observation; don’t call the cops.

This is a play for you to see as it adds to the ongoing conflict between what is expected and what is the reality that interferes with the expected.

Finding the Burnett Heart runs through May 27th only at the intimate Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd (on the Lillian Street side), Los Angeles, CA 90038.  Tickets:  323.960.7792 or at


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