Burning Coal Theatre Company
224 Polk St., Raleigh
Through June 28

It’s a beginning actor’s exercise: Say the words “I love you” like you would to the love of your life. Then, imagine they’ve just given you a million dollars, and say the words again. Now repeat the phrase as if they’ve just played an embarrassing practical joke on you. Next, imagine they’ve just told you they’re leaving you, for good. You didn’t see it coming. Say “I love you” again.

We tend to forget that words are dials; depending on the situation, they can be spun in any number of emotional directions. I’m still mulling over the spin—the subtext—that director Elizabeth London and actor Joey Heyworth came up with for two lines in Sea Wall, the first in a trilogy of one-act dramas that Burning Coal Theatre Company presents in rotating repertory this month. Here’s the first phrase: “People like me. They think I’m gentle.” The words could be spoken by someone who’s fooled the world—or, maybe, just himself. They can convey disillusionment or real menace. The second phrase, “I think we will,” could show bravado, arrogance, optimism—or doubt, should you emphasize the word “think.” Both are hinge moments in this play, and I’ve managed to disclose them without giving away anything about the character or the plot. It doesn’t spoil things, either, to note that Simon Stephens’ finely textured solo show has to do with a loss. It’s one that Alex, a photographer who provides our only window on this theatrical world, experiences, and ultimately compares to the edge of an abyss in the seas just off the coast of Europe. But what Stephen’s script (as well as London’s and Heyworth’s interpretation) underscores is an incisive analogue to the acting game above. In Sea Wall, it’s the character’s reactions to events that help determine their final meaning—and those meanings may not be the first or even second ones to come to mind. We’ve seen Stephens’ work before, not only in the region but also in this room. The Distillery produced his controversial drama, Pornography, for Burning Coal’s second stage in 2011. Divorced from the politics of that earlier work, Stephens has a good ear for the elliptical currents of conversation, and the eddies and dead ends of particularly treacherous memories. For acting and directing students, Heyworth and London’s nimble—and, occasionally, enigmatic—choices keep us wondering what the nature of the loss is, and what aftermath awaits. Heyworth navigates these emotional depths with clear ability. Unfortunately, the payoff in this 45-minute exercise seems a little skimpy to justify its presentation as the only work in an evening. Still, you’ll likely be debating the final outcome for at least as long as I’ve been. The story isn’t over when the play is.