Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mystery and Estrangement Stoke 'A Small Fire'

Victor Williams and Michele Pawk as trusted foreman and boss, above, in "A Small Fire." Photos by Joan Marcus.


have to live a little bigger,” Billy Fontaine tells his boss’ husband, John Bridges when Emily Bridges suffers a mind-boggling incapacity.

Adam Bock’s “A Small Fire” has its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater and has been extended through 30 Jan.

The play opens at a construction site where Emily (Michele Pawk) is in command. She is a tough-minded, plainspoken woman and runs her construction company with an iron fist. But she and foreman, Billy (Victor Williams), enjoy a comfortable and familiar camaraderie. (See video at

Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and John (Reed Birney), center and right, trying to include a disengaged Emily (Michele Pawk) in a bonding ritual in "A Small Fire."

Emily’s domestic relationships, however, are distinctly more strained. When she is with her husband John (Reed Birney), she clearly misses the work site. Her prickly directness, it is revealed as the story unfolds, has cost Emily her daughter, Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger). Jenny believes her father is put-upon and dismisses his assurance that her parents are bound by a mutual devotion. It is John who helps her with wedding arrangements, cheerfully deciding on where to seat guests.

In a truly superior cast, MP as Emily holds centerstage with a raucous, unexpected joy even as her character is gripped by an increasingly horrendous and mysterious malady. RB’s understated, natural performance is remarkable and simple. John’s senses heighten as Emily’s decline, and RB makes evident the delight John takes in the miracles of all he sees and smells.

Emily (Michele Pawk) isolates herself from husband John (Reed Birney) and daughter Celia (Celia Keenan-Bolger) in "A Small Fire."

Cloaked in a realism as solid as the metaphor of construction work can offer, the story for the most part seems more parable than reality. Emily’s loss of her senses is an isolating impairment that leaves a domineering woman powerless and dependent; medical tests are inconclusive; a costly and debilitating disease is inexplicable and unexplained.

“A Small Fire” comes to a surprising and life-affirming conclusion. Thanks to a wonderful cast and excellent production it is riveting and dramatic.

Visit to learn more about “A Small Fire.”

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