A Small Fire, by Adam Bock, is an excellent play that is less than excellently produced. The play is a study of a marriage thrown into crisis mode. On the brink of her daughter's wedding, Emily Bridges (Michelle Pawk) loses her sense of smell. What begins as something minor and manageable quickly turns devastating as Bridges' sight and hearing fail her as well and she becomes completely reliant on her husband, John (Reed Birney). Pain and frustration build as the couple begins to cope with their impossible situation, struggling to keep from losing one another entirely. The play takes place over a short period of time, perhaps a few weeks, and much is unknown: we know little of the characters' past, and their future, the major ways in which Emily's illness will change the Bridges' lives, is left uncertain. This short time span allows us to share in the Bridges' dawning realization of what is happening to Emily, to imagine the horror of suddenly finding oneself cut off from one's world, living in darkness and silence.
Bock's script doesn't situate the Bridges in a particular class or location, but the colloquialism of the characters' speech, when read, seems to connect the characters, to bind them as a family. He uses (or doesn’t use) punctuation to score the rhythms of his characters’ speech. For example, talking to his daughter one night, John says:
“She is I know she is. But. I don't know how it happens but somehow you can get tied to each other. You're gonna see with Henry. Your Mom and I we're different about some things but I'm lucky she didn't like being alone because I can't. I can't be.”
While Pawk leans into these rhythms, sometimes overplaying them, Birney muffles them, adapting the text to his own way of speaking. This distances the characters from one another, as if they are living in different worlds, different plays even, which cheapens their otherwise stellar performances.
This lack of unity and specificity is a fault of the production as a whole. The set design is vague and tells us little about who or where the Bridges are. Several sound bytes sound like (possibly are) instrumental covers of indie rock songs, jarringly out of place. Even the costume design is odd: Pawk speaks roughly but dresses exquisitely, and the juxtaposition is confusing. This all makes it more difficult to enter into the Bridges’ world and really care about their struggle.
The production does manage to execute the play’s few lyrical moments beautifully. The lighting design (by David Weiner) enhanced the tone of several scenes, heightening the mood and increasing the drama in subtle ways, never overbearing but quite affective. At the end of one scene, all lights go down save one just behind and above Emily, just for a moment, before all goes dark. The moment is a visual illustration of her extreme isolation, and the clarity of it is striking.
An equally striking moment occurs when Emily is having a dream. While her recorded voice describes the dream, where she can see and hear and smell again, she stands downstage, looking out into the audience. Upstage, panels move aside to reveal a beautiful, billowing, blue-green curtain, which, with the help of lighting, completely transforms the space, taking us from the Bridges' home to an ethereal otherwhere. The moment is an accomplishment in scenic prowess, and an example of how much can be done with relatively little.
Just after this dream comes the play's resolution, one that wouldn't be possible if it weren't for the brief time span of the play. Emily awakes from her dream, out of bed, disoriented and upset, and John attempts to comfort her. Slowly, sweetly, they begin to kiss, and this moves into passionate love-making. The scene is expertly staged: it is intense, beautiful and honest. As they reach orgasm, the audience also experiences a release, a release of the tension and frustration that their situation creates. It is a relief in the realization that despite everything that separates them, the Bridges are still able to connect, however momentary that connection may be.
Still, these highly dramatic or theatrical moments are the exception: the bulk of the play is conversation, and it would have been much better served if the director, Trip Cullman, had focused more on text and less on billowing curtains and steamy love scenes. A Small Fire is a strong play, but this production does not quite do it justice.