This is a strange, underdeveloped piece. Based on real events, Hearts on Fire is the story of a spiritual retreat which goes badly wrong, leading to the deaths of three participants.
The publicity material sets up the expectation of something quite intense and harrowing, but unfortunately the storytelling just isn’t strong enough to have that much of an effect.
It badly wants to be a piece of immersive theatre, but in reality it’s just a straightforward play performed on an installation set that doesn’t entirely make sense since much of the action does not actually take place in the sweat lodge. While the set may look like a tent, it lacks the heat, claustrophobia, dimness and scent to make it a fully immersive experience. Interaction with the audience is limited to a few moments of direct address.
Writer Adam Usden has missed a trick there – the New Age setting could have offered a perfect opportunity to get the audience involved using the language of guided meditation or relaxation exercises. He could have used those same devices to introduce us to the characters rather than shoehorning in some rather insipid flashback scenes. A little more homework on New Age practices might have helped to create some atmosphere and given us more than just a superficial view of the characters.
All we know about most of the cast is that they have $10,000 to spend on a retreat to become Spiritual Warriors. They’re thinly drawn, with little sense of conflict or development. The lack of background information or defining characteristics may have been an attempt at mystery, but instead it comes across as vagueness and makes it very difficult to care what happens to them. With so little to get to work on, it’s hardly surprising that the performances are underpowered and lacking in any truthful emotion.
There’s a lot of potential in the story itself, which offers room to explore cults, charismatic leaders, mass hysteria and the trials of people pushing themselves to the limits of their endurance. However, the script would have to be reworked with much more subtlety and sophistication to turn this into the nightmarish psychological drama that it could be.