by Kari Floren
Directed by Eve Brandstein
Featuring Nancy Johnston and Lynne Wintersteller
ArcLight Theatre, 152 W 71st Street
June 6, 2012 — June 24, 2012
production web site
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 5, 2012
Old friends, a single intriguing set, some intriguing then distracting (then clearly intentionally distracting) video effects, dialogue that entertains then rings false, and plot developments that begin well and, before fizzling, insult you along the way. Revisiting Wildfire is a play about two 50-something characters that this 50-something theatre critic is by default primed to enjoy. The final analysis with this product is not enough depth, not enough audience trust, not enough exploration in the script telling the story of the two old friends meeting up at pivotal times in their lives. The stories of the families and life stories of these women characters deserve to be treated by the women involved with this script and this production with much more respect.
Theresa (Lynne Wintersteller) has been a hermit for a few months in her long time West Village apartment after losing her job at an unnamed foundation — an event that occurred, we eventually learn from Theresa, after an unbelievable melt down featuring a nasty, stereotypical, and public cat-fight with a younger female work colleague. Her old colleague chum from NYU days Pam (Nancy Johnston) lets herself in with keys she has long held, surprising Theresa as she consoles herself by listening to the sappy 1975 hit “Wildfire.” (Full disclosure: I hated living through the 1970s the first time and the fact that the dramatic, thematic, musical symbolic crux of this play relies on one of the many musical earworms of that musically dismal era does my reaction to the drama no huge favors). Pam, who moved after college to Ohio with her husband, raise a family, and has yearned for her youth in the big city ever since, has been visiting Theresa and this apartment for decades for her City fix. Both women have life events to share — Theresa has reason for her firing and her thoughts of moving and Pam has a medical condition requiring treatment.
The physical shtick surprise of Pam’s entrance is the level of dramatic revelation in this play’s script and in the direction by Eve Brandstein. Each new plot detail is revealed as if with a ca-chung of a soap opera’s underscoring. Theresa simply tells Pam to leave her alone for several scenes and Pam worms her way in through alcohol and persistence. Theresa reveals her plan to move to Nebraska, perhaps inspired by the musical earworm but who knows, marked in plot action with snow shoes that arrive in the mail and pictures of log cabins to be purchased. We gain no deep understanding of what Theresa plans to do there or why Nebraska, but we are provided a few opportunities for jokes including one about the recluse Unabomber that is out of date by several years. Pam’s dismissal of several decades of marriage with petulance over a youthful promise not kept, and her willingness to keep her family — husband and young adult children — in the dark about her medical treatment rubs the wrong way, and challenges audience sympathy for her physical plight. (Theresa’s revelation of Pam’s medical condition to Pam’s husband over the phone, violating Pam’s power over this element of her condition, was so audacious and emotionally violent that it made me gasp. I lost much sympathy for Theresa in particular with that action.) The characters walk on together at the end of this play, still friends, now accommodating each other into the next phase of their lives. But they lost me, perhaps their intended demographic, long before this moment.
The actresses are game and strong and severely hampered by this script. Set design by Jason Sherwood creates a believable long-term West Village apartment. Projections by Daniel Heffernan initially enchant then seem relentless and manipulative as they flow along the ceiling edge above the action, initially commenting on early scenes then providing almost random interesting black and white city images to distract (or so it appears) during the set change overs that occur below, in dim light. Pretty pictures rather than an integrated design element.
© Martha Wade Steketee (June 8, 2012)