Defending dreams

Playground Theatre’s The Tutors at Schuster

Playground Theatre’s cast for The Tutors (l-r) Ryan Grissett (Milo) Jenna Gomes  (Heidi) A.J. Breslin  (Joe) Boyang Zhang (Kwan) Skyler McNeely (Toby)

By Dr. Jill Summerville

You’re having that dream again. No, not the one you have in bed that you’re ashamed to tell your parents. This is the one you’ve told everyone about, the one that sneaks in while you’re staring, heavy-lidded, into space when you should be meeting the demanding gaze of the uncompromising supervisor at your unsatisfying day job. This isn’t the dream you have while you’re sleeping. It’s the one you lose sleep for, laboring all night even though you no longer have the stamina you saw as a certainty in college. You’re having that dream again…But what if this time, by the end, you’re afraid it will never come true?

The Playground Theatre’s production of Erica Lipez’s 2013 play, The Tutors, presents an agonizing question: Do people pursue their dreams because they’re destined to achieve them, or because they’re afraid to let them go? Co-directors, Jenna Burnette and Chris Hahn, named their company, The Playground Theatre because, says Burnette, a playground is “where all of us go to grow up.” For millennials like Joe, Heidi, and Toby, the tutors of the play, growing up is no longer synonymous with moving up in the world. The roommates all rely on some form of tutoring to provide the modest income to support their meager lives. Toby and Joe tutor rich students who have a stronger sense of entitlement than academic ambition. Heidi proofreads collegiate and graduate school entry essays online. Though all three of them work as guiding voices for youth, they’re collectively trying to find a sense of direction. Toby and Joe’s dating and social media site isn’t a success yet, and the rapid rise of competing social media moguls is ensuring it will never become one. Once this becomes dishearteningly clear, the tutors have to decide, not what they want to do, but who they want to become.

The pleasure in this play comes from the familiarity of sharing a life, even when it’s not the life one wants to be living. If there’s inherent pathos in recognizing one’s own failures while watching others lose hope, there’s also inherent humor in attempting to cram a big dream into a tiny space. Burnette and Hahn invite audiences to share the characters’ lives as opposed to just observing them. Seated around the small, thrust stage, the audience is finding a place in this apartment (and this world) too. The production soundtrack, which is already available on the theatre company’s website, immerses us in the characters’ inner worlds.

Though the tutors are college students in their twenties, defining oneself isn’t strictly a luxury for youth in American culture. It is a pressing necessity at a time when adulthood comes with far more promise than stability. According to a 2013 survey by the website, CareerBuilder, one-third (31 percent) of college graduates thirty-five and over are never employed in their fields. Graduates aren’t realizing their dreams or making their rents; the website Student Loan Hero says the average 2016 graduate owes $37,172 worth of student loan debt. However, the failure to achieve financial solvency isn’t solely the curse of the college graduate. In his 2017 piece for The Atlantic, “The Silent Crisis of Retail Employment,” Derek Thompson says retail stores have shed nearly 100,000 jobs since October 2016. If everyone is a Sisyphus, ceaselessly rolling a boulder up a hill only to be continuously thwarted from making it to the top, a play like The Tutors is a welcome reminder that, though the struggle is lonely, no one is facing it alone. Says co-director, Chris Hahn: “I think people spend a lot of their lives wondering what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives.”

The Playground Theatre is the perfect place to find wonder within the quotidian. Founders Jenna Burnette and Chris Hahn present plays that reveal the raw wounds we receive when, as we inevitably will, we fall on this playground where we are growing up. Yet Playground productions also remind us that, while we will always live with these wounds, they need never define us. Burnette says of directing, “[The actors] and I talk about a lot of things […] I love cultivating entire worlds.” It’s this dedication to creating an entire world onstage, not easily definable act of devastating sorrow or ineffable joy that makes The Playground Theatre a place where actors can explore the world around them and the whims within them. Though The Tutors’ frank portrayal of young adults finding themselves would be relevant to a contemporary American audience at any moment, it’s also especially relevant to this theatre now. This is the Playground’s last season as part of the Impact Program, which allows smaller theatre companies to make use of the Schuster Center. Like the three tutors, it will soon need to find its own place.

The ability to navigate uncertainty with grace is something this company is always showing its audiences, onstage and offstage. Actor, Skyler McNeely, who plays Toby in The Tutors, says the play is “a classic, beautiful coming of age story with very comedic moments.” May every audience member realize a dream for the same.

This play runs from Jan. 4 through Jan. 7, 2018, at the Schuster Center’s Mathilde Theatre. Purchase tickets at

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