“Lesbian Cyrano” — high concepts don’t come much more concise. In expanding on this theme in “Burning,” a production by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, Ginger Lazarus delves into much more serious matters than courtship by proxy. The playwright’s central character, Cy Burns (the gruff and appealing Mal Malme), is an ex-Army sergeant who got herself booted from the service for insisting on “telling” when the official policy was don’t — and don’t ask, either (only recently repealed). Exactly why Cy chose to come out, torpedoing her career, is a semi-mystery skillfully teased out in the course of this timely, thought-provoking play directed by Steven Bogart.
Sidelined from her chosen calling (she signed on as a teen, after her family kicked her out), Cy runs a small cafe and grocery store near an Army base in a remote Western town. When not seeing to customers (evidently scarce) or stocking shelves, she writes a gadfly blog titled “Army Dyke Tells,” chronicling intra-unit assaults on servicewomen around the world.
And there’s plenty to report, even locally. A culture of pervasive violence isn’t confined to the camp. Cy’s gay teenage assistant/protégé, Sammy (delightfully offhanded Zachary Clarence), stumbles in after a brutal pounding by three soldiers, possibly in retaliation for his having documented a colonel going after a woman off-base. The upshot is the appointment of a new colonel, a certain Dulac (Steven Barkhimer), with whom Cy apparently has a history: He pays her a social call that’s half homage (he’d once envisioned her going places), but in large part veiled threat.
Lazarus’s script is wonderfully painterly — she daubs in details judiciously, in such a way that the image only gradually comes into focus. Always front and center, though, is Cy’s compelling attraction to Rose (Jessica Webb), a newcomer to town who is herself a painter (and waitress). It’s a tough job, embodying an ideal woman — perfection can grate — but Webb manages to mix some grit into a portrait primarily composed of starry-eyed joie de vivre.
Rose’s chosen object of affection — we know it won’t be Cy, even if Cy maintains that illusion through a discomfiting, if often humorous buildup — is tongue-tied Corporal Cole Noyes. Ian Michaels, forced to rely mostly on body language, conveys the frustrations of the verbally challenged; t here’s a point at which Cy’s grilling reduces him to near-tears. But just as a sad vulnerability lurks beneath Cole’s seemingly competent surface, so too does a penchant for lashing out when words fail.
This is not the courtly triangle envisioned by Edmond Rostand, and Lazarus’s plot likewise veers way off track — but in a way that will force you to confront her thesis, expressed by Cy, who’s in a permanent state of bitter mourning: “Silence is a killer.” Would that the antithesis — truth can heal? — prove an effective antidote. This play is a good start in that direction.
Sandy MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.