A Small Fire
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
January 2, 2011
In A Small Fire, Adam Bock’s new play at Playwrights Horizons, life slides down a slippery slope pretty fast, but it is only through loss that the characters find themselves and each other.
When A Small Fire begins, Emily and John, husband and wife, are miles apart psychologically—she is a contractor, a powerful boss in a man’s world, here represented by her cohort and diligent employee, Billy. John, Emily’s husband, is a mild-mannered 9-5’er in human resources. They have little in common except their daughter, Jenny, who is about to get married. Could it be the wedding—and a reminder of what was—that triggers an unidentifiable illness that causes Emily to lose her senses, one by one? First to go is Emily’s sense of smell, prompting a trip to the doctor and a heroic dismissal that whatever she’s got, it’s nothing. She can handle it. The denial turns to anger after sampling wedding cake that, to her, tastes like chalk. A chink in the armor begins to show when the lights go out, and Emily turns helpless once she is enveloped in silence. As Emily goes through the grieving process for the death of her powerful, untouchable self, John gains strength and sensory acuity.
Michele Pawk plays the impenetrable Emily. She shines brightest in her scenes with Victor Williams, who as Billy, draws honest and human sentiments from her character. As the husband, Reed Birney’s quiet patience is key in keeping this family, if not cohesive, at least functioning. Against this backdrop, it is surprising to hear him declare exuberantly that his sense of smell seems keener than ever after he learns of his wife’s loss. Celia Keenan-Bolger’s Jenny is a grown-up child. She’s become a competent lawyer, but can’t seem to outgrow her snitty childishness when she’s with her mother.
Jenny’s behavior is not always uncalled for. Emily expresses dislike for the groom. She resents paying for the wedding, doesn’t want to give her daughter a wedding gift or a check, because she does not want them to get married and is not happy for them. She leaves preparations for the wedding to John and Jenny. John, ever the conciliator, helps Jenny with table arrangements for the wedding, and diffuses tension with mild humor.
Bock’s dialog is often spare and direct, even startling. At the wedding, Emily sits, isolated from the gaiety, as John paints a detailed picture of the interactions at the event. At the end, she responds: “I didn’t love you. But I love you now. I’m sorry about everything.” It is a powerful moment. In another instant, perhaps the most dramatic of the play, Billy comes to visit Emily, now blind and deaf. She confesses heartfelt concerns when Jenny enters, unobserved. Jenny stays long enough to hear Emily say, “I’m tired of them.” After which she exits filled with hurt. What she misses is her mother’s full confession, “I’m tired of them worrying about me. It makes me worry about them…Will you get John out of the house…?” Jenny leaves with alarming misinformation, which fuels an already difficult relationship. However, both of these dramatic moments lose their potency when Bock follows them with small talk that swallows the impact. Too often, picturesque metaphors occupy time to make points that have already been poignantly made, leaving me, as an audience member, wondering, for example, how the homing pigeons fit in and when the robbery will take place. I longed for less exposition, especially at the start, and more on the consequences of each sensory loss. How Emily handles her loss would tell a lot about her character, and would have allowed Bock to start the action of the play in scene 1 instead of waiting until he is well into scene 2.
A Small Fire is an interesting parable. The more Emily loses, the brighter she shines. As if all her successes should amount to nothing if her husband can’t keep up with her. I was willing to grant that Emily once had a tender streak and a soft spot for romance, and that’s why she married John, an attentive, albeit unexciting, man. This would have been long before she found power and money as a contractor and well before John accepted the role as second fiddle. It would have been before John left her, and then returned, because he couldn’t live without her—all long before the play started. But the question does persist. How did these two people end up together?There is a good play in A Small Fire even if many of its best parts are hidden in exposition or buried among hints that never come to fruition. One thing is clear. Emily pushes her family away with her brash, bossy controlling ways. By losing her senses one by one, she shows her vulnerabilities until she is aching for tenderness. With four senses gone, Emily is wired for touch, the one sense that she retains, but is glaringly—and effectively—absent throughout the play. It is here that she and John find new satisfaction in a beautiful, climactic ending.