Review by Tulis McCall
(7 Jan 2010)
I am thinking of a puff ball. When I was a kid we found these little crusted balls in the woods – probably the fall. When you popped it open there was just a big pile of nothing. Puff stuff. I'm certain there was more to it than that, a propagation tool from Nature that used even us children as aides, but to a six year old this was way more boring than blowing dandelion seeds in the spring.
That's pretty much what happens in this play. An outer layer of some substance that when cracked open reveals something of much less substance.
Within A Small Fire, there is the STORY and the Story. The former is the tale of Emily Bridges (Michele Pawk) who is a contractor. This is the plus side of the production. Emily is a strong, independent woman in her 50’s whose company is working a site where there is a lot of noise and some overpriced carpeting on order. Emily is married to John (Reed Birney) with whom she starts small fires of contention that threaten to bust out of control without his attention. Emily and John have one child, a soon to be married daughter, Jenny Bridges (Celia Keenan-Bolger) who is nearly estranged from her mother because of Emily's caustic behavior. As a matter of fact, the only person with whom Emily gets on is her project manager, Billy, (Victor Williams) - a good and true friend with whom she swaps business confidences and good natured barbs.
But Emily lets down her guard around no one. Emily's life is a Still Life.
Into this ordered and dry life marches reality cracking a barbed whip. In a one two punch that has no explanation (or none we are given) Emily is struck down like a mighty tree. She loses her senses and then loses her sensed. This is where the Story starts. The Story is one of estrangement turned into intimacy because it has no other choice. Some people run toward the explosion and others run away.
The problem, and it is a mighty one, is that the two stories never connect. Emily's participation in the construction job and the consequences when she can no longer do that are never ginned up into a crisis. The woman who created her own construction business disappears the moment she becomes ill. Emily transforms from a woman in charge to a sad and mostly silent person who is left to ruminate on the couch with those around her able to communicate using yes and no hand signals to her questions. We never find out the source of this medical dilemma. We are never informed of a time-line. I presume it was at least weeks, as her daughter’s wedding was planned, came and went. There is no mention of therapy. No mention of a future. There is only the limbo of Emily now trapped in an uncooperative body. There is only the fact that she has gone from healthy to handicapped in a thrice and we are trapped with Emily in this story that has no end.
Nothing links to anything here. John’s devotion has no warp or woof. He is a genuinely good man who never falters. The only character who expresses any frustration is Jenny, who marries a man we never see, and her decision is to leave, which she does without ceremony; understandable in life, regrettable in a play. While everything is at stake in Emily’s life, nothing is at stake in this play. This is why the final scene, beautifully choreographed, moves the entire audience to near cheers: something happens in it.
There is also double jeopardy in the performance of Michele Pawk who works way too hard to portray a strong woman of a certain age. She already is one. She can afford to lay back a little. Pawk actually gets better the more debilitated she becomes because her distracting facial antics subside and she trusts herself.
Reed Birney, always a pleasure to watch because he makes it look easy, has one earnest note to play, and he gives it everything he has. Williams and Keenan-Bolger have been dealt the sincere and petulant cards respectively, and they too are valiant in their attempts.
In the end, however, it is the script that is lacking. The set up is a great one: the story of a strong defensive woman who is felled by fate and must crawl back from the edge of an abyss if she is to survive. This is the stuff of which Greek legends are made. In this case the text didn’t live up to the pitch, which was in the zone and over the plate.
Bock missed this one by a mile. A disappointing showing from this curious and daring writer - better luck next time!