Review by Judd Hollander
The fear of being trapped in a prison not of one's own making, with your efforts to connect to the outside world growing more difficult with every passing day. Playwright Adam Bock brilliantly taps into these fears in his searing, and very human work, A Small Fire, now at Playwrights Horizons.
Emily (Michelle Pawk) is a hard-charging, no-nonsense construction supervisor and a workaholic woman whose family life often takes a back seat to her job. A position accepted by her genial and loving husband John (Reed Birney), and less so by their daughter Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger). Emily and Jenny have never been close and their relationship is now even more strained as the family is preparing for Jenny's upcoming wedding to someone her mother doesn't think too highly of. This despite the fact Jenny and her fiancée are very much in love.
Emily's well-ordered if not always happy life is suddenly thrown for her loop when she unexpectedly begins losing her sense of smell (she's unable to detect the beginnings of a fire in the kitchen). This is followed by the loss of her sense of taste, sight, and finally hearing. Yet through it all she still tries (and for the most part succeeds) in being the independent one in the family. Too much so at times, often not realizing the effects her condition has on her daughter and husband, one which allows them to grow closer together and also drives them further apart.
What makes the play so affecting is not only how Bock has effectively tapped into this universal fear, but also through his creation of several fully-formed characters, especially Emily who is continually adapting to her limitations, working out a way to communicate with her friends and family. Even though, as she tells Billy (Victor Williams), her partner in the construction company, "I have to make up all the questions." She's also quite adept at reading the people around her, such as knowing when they're lying. Pawk is excellent in the role, bringing forth Emily's determination, anguish, fear and the ultimate realization that she needs the very people she's so often treated as little more than an afterthought. There's also a quiet dignity and pride about the character, and a few shattering moments when this mask slips, making it one of the best performances of the season.
Birney is very good as the long-suffering husband, forced to take the lead in the household and dealing with things he'd rather perennially put off. His most interesting moment, strangely enough, occurs when he's out having a good time with Billy (who raises pigeons) after Emily basically forces him to go out and have some fun. Williams is a nice supporting character as Billy, a big, burly and supremely loyal fellow who towers over Pawk, sharing both the camaraderie born out of experience on the job; as well as a quiet and poignant moment when he comes to visit her after she's stricken. Jenny unfortunately, makes for the one weak link in the story, the daughter not being developed as well as she could be. Keenan-Bolger is good in the role, but it would have been nice to see her have more to do.
Trip Cullman's direction is very good, effectively building the tension and keeping the story moving until it feels things are about to explode. Especially in the climatic scene and final words spoken, which are a testament to not only the power of the script and the actors bringing the characters to life, but also an emotional declaration of the power of the human spirit.
Loy Acrenas's set works nicely, Robert Kaplowitz's sound is good, offering important exposition in key points, and David Weiner's lighting is excellent. Costumes by Ilona Somogyi are fine.
Heart-tugging to watch and brilliant in its execution, A Small Fire is one show that hopefully will not be forgotten when awards season rolls around.
A Small Fire
Written by Adam Bock
Directed by Trip Cullman
Scenic Design: Loy Arcenas
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design: David Weiner
Original Music and Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz
Press: The Publicity Office
Presented by Playwrights Horizons
Michelle Pawk (Emily Bridges), Victor Williams (Billy Fontaine), Reed Birney (John Bridges), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Jenny Bridges)
416 West 42nd Street
Closed: January 30, 2011
Running Time: 80 Minutes