A FIRE AS BRIGHT AS HEAVEN
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 16, 2008
Tim Collins's one-man play A Fire as Bright as Heaven is a spectacularly impressive showcase of his talents as an actor and writer. It is also a smart, thoughtful, funny, sad, and sometimes incendiary meditation on the last seven years of American history. It is the most potent work I have seen so far at this year's FringeNYC. For which ever of the foregoing reasons strikes a chord in you—you want to catch this show.
The program says the play unfolds in five chapters, each of which takes place in a particular city in a particular year. The first section is set in London in 2001; it begins with Collins informing us that he flew from New York to London on September 10th of that year to study acting abroad. What follows, of course, has little to do with acting and everything to do with that terrible day that became a signpost in the lives of every American and indeed is the logical starting point for the journey Collins takes us on here.
In London, we meet a professor whose American students feel misunderstood in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11, and an expatriate counselor whose postmodern deconstruction of the attacks on the World Trade Center is almost surreal in its detachment. Collins acts all of these characters himself, physically moving to each one's position in the scene and adding accessories (eyeglasses, jackets, that sort of thing) to help us "see" these distinct people. His characterizations are detailed and remarkable in their depth, considering how quickly some of them pass by. One of the singular aspects of his approach is to allow breathing room between characters, so that we can see each one react to the others.
From London the story moves to a remote New England town in 2003, where Collins is working in an educational toy store, fending off requests for plastic F-16 planes and G.I. Joe dolls—for the present war in Iraq has just begun. Next, we find him in the Boston area in 2005, interviewing random people about their attitudes toward terrorism; and then, in 2007 in St. Louis at a convention of the National Rifle Association. The final segment takes place now, anywhere in America, and features Collins going door-to-door, canvassing, perhaps, for Obama. He meets a very tired, very typical young man who, overloaded on too much news and finding too few ways to actually act on all that information, seems to have reached the end of his rope. Of all the characters Collins introduces us to in A Fire as Bright as Heaven, this nameless fellow is the one that resonated most deeply for me. I do not think I was alone in this.
The script is topical and overtly political and maintains an interesting balance despite (or perhaps because of) Collins's obvious humanist leanings. A young Republican explains why he's happy and liberals aren't with almost frightening clarity; but the scariest thing about him, for me, is his constant reassurance "I'm just playing with ya!" Others whom we encounter on Collins's trip through our recent collective past include a marketing manager for the NRA Store, a mother trying to make sense of the then-recent invasion of Iraq, and a young American woman organizing a candlelight vigil for the victims of 9/11. All ring startlingly true.
Collins is a writer and actor of enormous intelligence, range, and sensitivity. His ability to crystallize much of what's ailing the American psyche just now is both uncanny and invaluable. I cannot recommend this piece too highly; and I look forward to whatever he brings to audiences next.