A Challenging and Captivating Script and Compelling Performances Make Burning Coal Theatre Company’s Skylight a Must-See Show


Skylight by British playwright David Hare, which is playing now through Oct. 23rd in Burning Coal Theatre Company’s Murphey School Auditorium in Raleigh, premiered in 1995 in the West End of London. In 1996, it moved to Broadway, where it received a Tony Award® nomination for Best Play. In 2014, both productions received a revival and another round of Tony nods followed. Actors from each production have been consistently recognized.

Sir David Hare, who was knighted in 1998, is best known for his plays The Judas Kiss (1997) and The Blue Room (1998), as well as the screenplays for Plenty (1985, based on his 1978 playDamage (1992), The Hours (2002), and The Reader (2008). His adapted screenplays for the latter two earned Hare Academy Award® nominations.

In Skylight, London schoolteacher Kyra is visited by two men from her past. Conversations about love, grief, social justice, education, wealth, gender, and infidelity follow — the debate ranging from flirtatious to combative. As the play progresses, you can hear the audience begin to take sides.

Burning Coal’s production is directed by John Gulley, associate professor of theater at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He’s found a tremendously talented cast: Emily Barrett Rieder as Kyra Hollis, Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis as Tom Sergeant, and recent N.C. State University graduate Matthew Tucker as teenager Edward Sergeant.

Gulley has taken a battle royale of personality and politics and staged his actors as though they are in a boxing ring: circling each other throughout Kyra’s apartment as the evening moves on. Davis as Tom and Rieder as Kyra stay in their respective corners of the ring, coming to center to strike below the belt.

Emily Rieder honors us with a dynamic performance as the professional, uptight day-to-day Kyra. When she peels an onion on stage for dinner, one cannot help but see that she’s peeling away her defenses as well, revealing resentment and fragility. She explodes onto the stage, and we can’t take our eyes — and ears — off of her. Her emotional range is of the highest caliber, and her accurate British accent does not distract.

Even though dramatist David Hare has not given the pompous Tom nearly the number of layers as Kyra, Jerome Davis still removes his coat — both literally and figuratively — to reveal the haunted and defeated man beneath the pretentious manner. His stubbornness, equal to Kyra’s, is more infuriating, since it is peppered with misogyny and dismissiveness.

Davis strikes a counterbalance between mocking Kyra’s compassion and craving her affections. He is subtle: small gestures and vocal mannerisms enhance his character, and his English accent rarely slips off track.

Matthew Tucker, who is a smidgen too old for the part, possesses the smartass quality of most 18-year-old boys, but steers clear of the banality of the Troubled Teen trope. Rather, he presents a sympathetic kid with understandable anger. His British accent is convincing when present, but occasional slips are noticeable to the trained ear.

<em>Skylight</em> stars Jerome Davis and Emily Barrett Rieder (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)
Skylight stars Jerome Davis and Emily Barrett Rieder (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)

Elizabeth Newton’s set is a combination of the presentational and the representational. Most elements are there in great detail, including a fully working kitchen. Walls are suggested by an iron framework, offering a peek at the windows of the neighborhood beyond. A multitude of props, many used for practical cooking, are impressively realistic additions.

The familiar sounds and smells of dinnertime transport us, and bring comfort and familiarity, making the boxing match all the more jarring. Many arguments have been had while making spaghetti, and Hare gives us that relatability.

Erich Keil’s lighting design is impressively realistic. Moonlight from the windows, the golden glow of the lamps, and the kitchen’s cold halogen function simultaneously within the space: each area with its own personality, something that director John Gulley has used to great effect with his blocking. The constant lighting shifts, however, are distracting. An admirable attempt is made to manipulate mood, but we eventually enter a Show About Lighting.

Much fuss is made in the dialogue about Tom’s coat, and his reluctance to shed it. Costume designer Katy Werlin has taken the author’s cue to develop a clever motif of covering and uncovering bodies and emotions simultaneously.

Steve Burnett’s sound effects are authentic and well-arranged. The day-to-day realities of running bath water and intercom communication are combined with the practical noises of Newton’s kitchen to drop us into Kyra’s flat.

As explained in Jerome Davis’ artistic director’s note in the show’s program, these characters are speaking to the audience, though indirectly. Hare is asking dozens of questions, with a few answers thrown in for those playing at home. The ways in which we won’t/can’t hear each other is timely, given a climate of political Facebook and Twitter battles and pontificating televised talking heads.

One speech — Kyra’s denunciation of conservative complacency and presumptuous politicians — received enthusiastic applause upon its completion — as much for Emily Rieder’s ardent delivery as for Hare’s defense of an education system that focuses on social justice and community welfare. This system, one that has been trampled upon by our own state’s legislature for years, has been a conversation in the United Kingdom for just as long.

This is a must-see production, with a challenging and captivating script, a realistic setting, and expert performances. It is not to be missed.

The production is in the PG-13 zone for strong language, emotional intensity, and some sexual content. It clocks in at a little over 2 hours.

<em>Skylight</em> stars Emily Barrett Rieder and Jerome Davis (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)
Skylight stars Emily Barrett Rieder and Jerome Davis (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)

SECOND OPINION: Oct. 7th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8160, and Oct. 5th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/skylight/Event?oid=5068174.

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents SKYLIGHT at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7 and 8, 2 p.m. Oct. 9, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13-15, 2 p.m. Oct. 16, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20-22, and 2 p.m. Oct. 23 in the Murphey School Auditorium, 224 Polk St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604, near the Historic Oakwood Section.

TICKETS: $15 Thursdays and $25 Friday-Sunday ($15 students and active-duty military personnel and $20 seniors 65+), except “Pay-What-You-Can” Day on Sunday, Oct. 9th, $5 Student Rush Tickets (sold at the door, 5 minutes before curtain), and $15 per person for groups of 10 or more.

BOX OFFICE: 919-834-4001 or http://www.etix.com/.

SHOW: http://burningcoal.org/main-stage-show-skylight/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/1773145636277743/.

VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSPeSjEkmpw.

STUDY GUIDE: http://burningcoal.org/wp-content/uploads/SKYLIGHT-study-guide.pdf.

PRESENTER: http://www.burningcoal.org/, https://www.facebook.com/Burning.Coal.Theatre, and https://twitter.com/burningcoaltc.

VENUE/DIRECTIONS: http://burningcoal.org/murphey-school-auditorium/.

NOTE 1:The 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9th, show is a Pay-What-You-Can Performance.

NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9th, performance.


Skylight (1995 West End and 1996 Broadway play): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/1982/skylight (Samuel French, Inc.), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/skylight-4798 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skylight_%28play%29 (Wikipedia). The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Sir David Hare (English playwright and screenwriter): https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/david-hare (British Council | Literature bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/david-hare-27017 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002376/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/David-Hare-51688933489/ (Facebook page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hare_%28playwright%29 (Wikipedia).

John Gulley (Greensboro, NC director and associate professor at UNCG): https://vpa.uncg.edu/bios/john-gulley (University of North Carolina at Greensboro bio) and https://www.facebook.com/john.gulley.319 (Facebook page).


Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.