Olivia Cygan (Sophie Martin) and Coburn Goss (Ryan Martin) in The Burials, directed by Erica Weiss, at Steppenwolf for Young Adults.
Coburn Goss and Olivia Cygan star in The Burials, directed by Erica Weiss, at Steppenwolf for Young Adults.
(© Michael Brosilow)

The Burials, now playing as part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program, has the thankless task of fictionalizing American school shootings. Loosely based on Sophocles' Antigone, The Burials tells this brutal story through the family of a young man (Matt Farabee, seen only in prerecorded video clips) who carries out a plan to murder as many of his classmates as he can, before turning the gun on himself.

Before the carnage, bright and popular high school senior Sophie Martin (Olivia Cygan) enjoys a carefree Tuesday morning before classes. Along with her friends Janette and Jayden (Stephanie Andrea Barron and Joel Boyd, both underutilized), and Sophie's freshman sister Chloe (Becca Savoy), they hang out in the hallway, discussing the Republican primary elections. Sophie and Chloe's conservative father (Coburn Goss) is running for Senate, and Sophie's biggest worry is crafting the perfect caption to tweet out along with her obligatory voting-booth selfie.

Then, as it must, the shooting begins. Mercifully, it doesn't occur onstage, but what we hear (courtesy of sound designer Matt Chapman) is evocative enough. We rejoin Sophie and Chloe in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when they are told first that their brother Ben died in the shooting, and then something far worse: that Ben himself was the shooter. The Martin sisters are instant pariahs, but in a show of strength, for the sake of their father's campaign, they stay on at Anderson High School. As the last few months of the school year unfold, being ignored evolves into being reviled and threatened, both online and off.

As Sophie, Cygan does not always read as a teen, even one forced to grow up too soon. She does have moving moments, particularly in a late scene with Ty Olwin as an embittered classmate. Savoy radiates pathos and wry humor in her scene-stealing turn as Chloe, the youngest child of the Martin clan. Savoy and Cygan have a strong sisterly chemistry, and they both resemble their onstage father. Tied together visually with stylish costumes by Alarie Hammock, the three surviving Martins look and feel like a believable family unit, even when their story veers into maudlin territory.

Caitlin Parrish's script is best when it is exploring personal questions: What could Ben's family have done to turn his heart? What do they owe the other victims? How can any of them move forward? But at every turn, it goes several steps further than necessary to make its point. The characters don't just take on the burden of survivor's guilt, they've got to solve the national gun crisis while they're at it. Through Sophie's eyes, the play takes such pains to explore the humanity of even the most reprehensible people, but traditional media is represented by broadcaster Zoe (an appropriately smarmy Kristina Valada-Viars), whose ruthless opportunism is comically inhumane.

More interesting is how new media is treated in The Burials. As the Anderson shooting becomes national news, the internet serves as a Greek chorus. Tweets, texts, and videos supplement the onstage action, projected on screens integrated into Courtney O'Neill's versatile set. The students interact with the online world as much as they do one another. This digital touch is certainly realistic, but the screens inhibit the natural pace of the story as much as they add to it. Director Erica Weiss works to keep the scenes flowing, but even with a 90-minute run time, The Burials struggles to keep up. Hopefully the nuance that is missed onstage will be found in the classroom discussions that this timely play is sure to provoke.