Review: ‘Burst’ at Parlor Room Theater

The sudden incapacity of their mother is the occasion for three siblings and their cousin to gather at a Boston hospital in Amy Leigh Horan’s touching and perceptive new family dramedy Burst, just opened in a lovely Parlor Room Theater production. The title refers to the mother’s burst brain aneurysm. She’s off stage in a coma. Everyone is hoping for and expecting her recovery. But…

“I googled it,” announces the gangly teenage cousin Kira—in a bubbly-awkward performance by Tori Boutin—who then reads from her smartphone the dire prognosis.

So we pretty much know where this play is headed. But the beautiful way it unfolds—the affecting and surprisingly humorous way it gets there—is what holds our rapt attention.  As tightly and tenderly directed by Bridget Grace Sheaff, there’s not a moment in Burst’s 90 minutes when its characters’ truths are not treasured.

Tori Boutin (Kira) and Robert Pike (Stephen) in Burst. Photo by Amy Horan.

The set by Ember DiSalvo is a generic waiting room with bland seating, beige walls, institutional tile on the floor, and the implicit behest to be calm and be patient because you’re likely to be here a while.

Alison Talvacchio (Erin) and Robert Pike (Stephen) in Burst. Photo by Amy Horan.

The first two siblings we meet are the oldest, twenty-something Erin, and the youngest, high schooler Stephen. Both live at home with their mom, their father having passed some years ago.

Erin takes to heart her firstborn responsibility to both her mother and her younger brother, and in Alison Talvaccio’s nuanced performance we sense also a grownup’s weight of incipient grief.

Stephen, with his emotions churning from sullen and morose to brash and exuberant, is Horan’s most complex character. He’s absorbed in his iPad, hands in pockets in his hoodie, by turns sulky and antic, and in Robert Pike’s impressive performance also the production’s most arresting.

When middle sibling Ally, who lives in New York trying to make it as an actor, shows up with her boyfriend Steve, sparks fly. “You’re not around,” says Erin resentfully. And indeed Ally intends to fly back for an audition she deems more important than her dying mom.

Ally, as written, is a bit of a flibbertigibbet, her self-centeredness well conveyed in Mo O’Rourke’s performance. She and Steve, her kind-hearted and level-headed beau, might seem an unlikely match, but Thomas DiSalvo’s performance makes the relationship plausible.

One might not think the serious implications of the mother’s health crisis would occasion much levity, but Horan’s deft comic touch is evident throughout. A high point of the show, for instance, is when Stephen gets everyone to join him on a hilarious “Wobble Baby” dance.

Mo O’Rourke (Ally) and Thomas DiSalvo (Steve) in Burst. Photo by Amy Horan.

Dramaturgically the most original element of Burst is the fact that Stephen, Erin, Ally, Kira, and even Steve each have a turn delivering a monologue as if to the mother in her room in an ICU.  Though these poignant passages don’t tell us much about the mother—who remains a passive placeholder until the stunning final scene—they play like telltale heart monitors wired deep inside those giving them voice.

Costume Designer Julie Cray Leong also pegs the characters and their context. Stephen, for instance, wears a Fenway T. And Kira wears a sparkly tiara with cat ears, which she cutely leaves as a gift for her nonresponsive aunt. Lighting Designer Dean Leong gracefully shifts our focus between the waiting room and the ICU. And Sound Designer Frank DiSalvo Jr.’s music choices include artists mentioned in the script, from John Denver to Eminem, and function wonderfully as emotional breathers between scenes—the way a movie will cut away to a long shot of scenery going by, so we can absorb what just happened before the story moves on.

Burst turns out to be not so much about the stricken parent at its center as about the apprehensions and deep affections among immediate family members now sharing a loss that is unspeakable—except for what Horan allows us to hear.

“The one person that I told everything to every single day is gone,” says Stephen near the end.

Anyone who has known or anticipated such a loss will leave Burst deeply moved.

Amy Leigh Horan’s new play has a promising future on other stages. Catch it now its first time out.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Burst plays through May 27, 2018, at Parlor Room Theater performing at the Callan Theatre in the Hartke Theatre Complex on the campus of Catholic University – 3801 Harewood Road, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 340-8623, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


  1. Great review, went to see the play and loved it!

    Quick note – director’s name is Bridget Grace Sheaff, not Shaeff.


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