Thursday, January 06, 2011

THEATER: A Small Fire

When we first meet Emily Bridges (Michele Pawk) at the opening of A Small Fire, she's the ball-busting commander of her construction site, joking around with her tough-looking foreman Billy (Victor Williams), but also criticizing him for not getting a better price from the carpeting contractors. She's unafraid to speak her mind, telling not only her husband, John (Reed Birney), that she's against their daughter getting married, but telling her daughter, Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger), too. She's so rough, in fact, that we begin to wonder what sort of man John is to so insistently defend her: "She puts up with me, too," he tells his daughter as the two genially plan the wedding over glasses of wine. And though he confesses that he once almost left, he points out that "Some people get tied."

This being an Adam Bock play, the circumstances soon begin to shift: it soon comes out that Emily has lost her sense of smell, and in quick succession, her sense of taste. This woman who has prized herself on being the strong one, on being in control, suddenly finds herself blind, as well, and toward the end of the play, deaf, too. The doctors remain clueless, which establishes the illness more as an existential one than a medical mystery; Bock has called A Small Fire a memento mori play, a reminder of mortality. The show goes beyond that, though. It examines not just the ways in which people remain tied, but also the nature of those bonds, which as Billy optimistically puts it -- for he has been through grief in his past, as well -- can either lead to an approximated relationship, or one that transforms and adapts. ("In sickness and in health" comes to mind.)

The remaining play is filled with scenes of great disappointment, greater struggle, and greatest beauty, as Emily and John deal with their new life: "I can't go on. I'll go on." Short, successful scenes -- some no longer than a minute -- begin to draw out Emily's tender side (a moment at the bedside, as she gropes to find her husband's hand) while still maintaining her indomitable spirit (abruptly, she bursts into curses, as if she might order the powers that be around: "It's stupid. It's the stupidest thing ever!"). Bock is forced to create a new language for their situation, from the way John tearfully, proudly describes the wedding to Emily, seeing with eyes for the both of them, to the way Emily at last finds a profound way to remain connected to her husband. As agonizing and terrifying as her helplessness may be, it leaves some small hope behind that life does continue: "I am still in here," she says, clutching to her husband, her sense of touch intact. (It's a tear-inducing play, on par with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.)

A fire can be disastrous, or it can be warm; a small one must either be snuffed out or carefully nourished, and in John and Jenny, Bock is able to explore both options. (It helps that Birney has an exquisite tenderness to him, a wide-eyed wonder that shows his deep heart.) And though some of the lines border on being maudlin -- "Love isn't what you get from someone, it's what you give" -- actors like Williams are so casual in their roles (like second skins), that such observations end up coming across as profound. And through it all, it's an honor to watch Pawk struggle, showing us that although her character's senses may have grown diminished, her emotions and her presence -- even if it's just sitting on a couch, bumping her fists together and feeling for the vibrations of the person sitting next to her -- are still intact, if not magnified. Some credit is due to director Trip Cullman, as well, who collaborated on Bock's last play (The Drunken City), and here delivers his most subdued and sincere production yet.

A Small Fire is a devastating work of theater, but also a magical one -- much like a phoenix, which burns its way past the pain into a glimmering rebirth.

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