Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Small Fire: A Lesson in Loss and Gain

Michele Pawk and Reed Birney
It’s unsettling to be a woman on Broadway these days.

No, I’m not referring to the announcement that Natalie Mendoza, a lead actress in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, is leaving the show after suffering a concussion during the troubled musical’s first preview performance.

Rather, I am thinking of the spate of current shows, both on and off Broadway, depicting women suffering from any number of mental and physical illnesses. To name a few that come to mind, there’s treatment-resistant bipolar disorder in Next to Normal; post-coma trauma in A Kind of Alaska; Valium addiction and loss of self in Angels in America, and a lengthy stint in a mental institution in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Now we have a new play to add to the list—A Small Fire, written by Adam Bock, and directed by Trip Cullman, currently in previews at Playwrights Horizons.

Michele Pawk, a versatile musical and dramatic actress, gives a sharp-elbowed yet ultimately moving performance as Emily Bridges, a fiercely independent tough-as-nails building contractor who is stricken by a cascading series of physical losses that force her into what she considers to be a most humiliating position of having to depend on others.

The first sign of trouble occurs when Emily is unable to smell the smoke from a burning napkin that has caught fire after she has accidentally left the stove on. Emily’s long-suffering husband John (well-acted by the estimable Reed Birney) teases her about her absent-mindedness, until they both find out that Emily has a very real disease, of unknown origin or treatment, that quickly spreads from the loss of smell to a loss of taste, and later, of sight and of hearing.

The core of the plot focuses on Emily’s reaction to these losses, and the extent to which she is able or unable to accept them as her world closes in on her.

All of this would be merely an intellectual exercise if the playwright hadn’t been able to find the emotional core as well, and, compellingly and winningly, A Small Fire is as much about personal relationships as it is a medical mystery.

More specifically, it is about a marriage that has held together through many years, however mismatched the couple may seem to the outside world. Emily and John clearly have a history that binds them together, even if their daughter Jenny (played with just the right amount of twenty-something ego-centrism by Celia Keenan-Bolger) finds her mother to be difficult, rude, and distant, and frequently wonders aloud why her gentle father stays with Emily.

The cast is rounded out by Victor Williams as Billy, Emily’s right-hand man in her construction business. Emily and Billy share an ease of familiarity as well as their own history—strictly platonic, in case you were wondering—that she does not have with her own family. Their friendship, while perhaps a little shoehorned into the play as a whole, allows us to see another side of Emily.

All told, Adam Bock has shaped a solid play about a woman and a family in crisis. We do worry about Emily as she faces an inner struggle about her own future—a struggle that, to Mr. Bock’s credit and in keeping with Emily’s reticence, is never spoken of directly but which we nevertheless understand she is going through until the very end.

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