Arts & Culture

Theater review: Burning Coal’s strong cast, direction rise above script

Rimsha Afzal in the Burning Coal Theatre Company’s production of Clare Bayley’s “Blue Sky.”
Rimsha Afzal in the Burning Coal Theatre Company’s production of Clare Bayley’s “Blue Sky.” Right Image Photography, Inc.

What are the ethical limits for journalists? How does the freewheeling Internet affect investigative journalism? These are questions explored in Clare Bayley’s 2012 play, “Blue Sky.” Burning Coal Theatre Company’s U.S. premiere boasts a strong cast, astute direction and arresting technical aspects, helping to minimize the script’s several deficiencies.

The story takes place England in 2003, after Britain and the U.S. have invaded Iraq. Jane, a freelance print journalist, is on the trail of possible illegal activity by the CIA involving the disappearance of a suspected terrorist. Needing verification of a private plane’s flights to confirm her theory, Jane looks up her hometown friend Ray, a plane-spotting hobbyist. Through his Internet skills (and her snooping on his laptop), Jane acquires the desired documentation for further investigation.

Jane’s willingness to do anything to get what she needs eventually puts her at odds with Ray, who doesn’t want to get involved in political controversy for reasons that eventually become clear. Jane also gets on the wrong side of Ana, Ray’s grown daughter, a media studies student and activist blogger. The two disagree about when damaging evidence should be made public.

Bayley develops two story arcs: one, a thriller-style chasing of clues concerning the missing man; the other, Jane and Ray’s back story and Ray’s prickly relationship with Ana. Bayley makes us care about the characters’ personal lives but Jane’s relentless pursuit of her hunch bogs down in too many uninteresting, repetitive details about a situation now all too familiar. And, with so many short scenes over its 90-minute span, the script feels choppy, especially the quick crosscuts, better suited to TV and movies.

Despite these flaws, the production consistently engages through Gus Heagerty’s precise, energetic direction, which focuses on the characters’ foibles and weaknesses.

Shannon Malone’s Jane is properly obsessive, biting and sly, while allowing hints of past wounds and regrets to peek through. As Ray, John Allore creates another lovable portrait, showing how Ray’s laid back world is upended when forced to face his past. Mya Ison’s confident, feisty Ana is extremely warm and likable as she attempts deeper connections with her father. Rimsha Afzal, as the missing man’s wife Mina, communicates understandable misgivings about Jane’s disturbing questions.

The large gallery in the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh provides suitable openness for Nick Solyom’s evocative lighting, especially the airport scenes, palpably enhanced with Patrick Calhoun’s chest-pounding engine sounds. Elizabeth Newton’s wire fencing easily suggests airport tarmacs and her various room settings add pertinent detail.

This collaboration between theater and museum works well, suggesting further possibilities for similarly creative presentations.

Dicks: music_theater@lycos.com

If you go

What: “Blue Sky” presented by Burning Coal Theatre

Where: Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh, 409 Martin St., Raleigh

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29-30, Feb. 4, 6, 11-13; 2 p.m. Jan. 31, Feb. 7, 14; 10 p.m. Feb. 5

Tickets: $25 (seniors $20; students $15; Thursdays $15 all seats)

Info: 919-834-4001 or burningcoal.org

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