A Small Fire

By Adam Bock
Directed by Trip Cullman
Featuring Reed Birney, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Michele Pawk, Victor Williams

Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
production web site: http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/mainstage.asp

January 6, 2011 — January 23, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 14, 2011

Michele Pawk and Reed Birney (photo: Sara Krulwich, New York Times)

Existing reviews of this world premiere work point to nuances and minutiae. As in the work of John Osborne, we are led to expect slice-of-life choices and moments rather than explosions. What I do receive in my far right front row seat is hyper realism, a mysterious ailment suffered by one character that both destroys and reveals life possibilities, a domestic drama, husband and wife, mother and daughter, co-workers, some rifts, some resolutions, and amazing theatrical skill.

With a new work, we react both to the play on the page in a dramaturgical way, and to performances on the stage in (as in this case) a glorious visceral way.  These actors take your breath away.  Emily Bridges (Michele Pawk) runs a construction business, husband John (Reed Birney) has a corporate Human Relations position, daughter Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger) is planning a wedding for which her father has more patience than non-domestic mother (and more warm feelings for the groom we do not meet).   Emily’s employee Billy Fontaine (Victor Williams) supports her, takes her instructions, runs the business when Emily is unable, takes her side, illuminates parts of her character she  demonstrates at work but not to her family at home.  This is a play out of puzzle pieces, a patchwork quilt of work lives unknown then revealed to family members, of family members unknown to one another, and a disease that appears to take primary senses (first taste then smell then sight), one by one, to take the whole family on another journey of discovery.  For some, certain elements of the story telling may not ring true (could a daughter act in a particular way or is the employee necessary to complete the arc of the story).  For me, each element is essential and each mystery intriguing.

We begin this story in medias res (Emily at work, with hearing through sound cues affected first but that appears only a hint of the other senses to be compromised in subsequent scenes), and end the play in glorious res, with unresolved mother daughter relationship and something new a-brewing between the middle-aged married partners.

Spare storytelling.  Deliciously acted.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 17, 2011)

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