A Small Fire


In A Small Fire, the new Adam Bock play currently running at Playwrights Horizons, a small fire that is actually just a smolder is actually just the beginning. Throughout this brief, at times uneven, small play, we see the many little fires that spark crises in a small family.

This four character play, directed by Trip Cullman, centers around the Bridges family: mom, dad and daughter, Emily (Michele Pawk), John (Reed Birney) and Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger), and Emily’s colleague, Billy (Victor Williams). Jenny is getting married - the wedding is just a few weeks away - and at rise, Emily doesn’t really like the fiance. That’s not particularly important except that through this difference of opinion, we see early on that Emily and Jenny have a troubled relationship. To wit: When John tells Jenny about the small fire Emily almost started, Jenny quips that she doesn’t know why John, her father, didn’t leave Emily, her mother, a long time ago. This strain between mother and daughter, and the doting, loving, if at times complicated, relationship between husband and wife all serve to set up an exploration of what happens when your loved ones start losing their senses.

That’s not a euphemism. In just the second scene, when the small fire is discovered, I thought that Emily was, euphemistically, losing her senses; that perhaps this was a warning sign of Alzheimer’s or dementia. We soon learn however, that she is losing her actual senses, the senses of smell, sight and hearing. Reflecting on this, I’m inclined to say that in either the euphemistic or literal sense (if you’ll pardon the pun), the struggles of losing your senses - the struggles for both you and your loved ones - are similar. Granted, there are immense differences, particularly for the person losing touch; cognitive function varies greatly between succumbing to Alzheimer’s and losing your sense of smell, but, particularly for the loved ones watching this happen, the themes explored in A Small Fire are similar. While your loved one is losing her senses, you’re losing your loved one. You’re losing grasp of this person you’ve known for what seems like all your life and suddenly you have to relearn who this person is and how to interact with her.

I connected intensely to this theme, having watched my maternal grandmother devolve with Alzheimer’s, and having watched my mother deal with the devolution’s effects. (This is the reason watching or reading The Notebook is such an intense experience for me.) Because of this connection, I felt there were some missed exploration opportunities.

As it’s presented now, A Small Fire is just 80 minutes long and focuses mainly on Emily and John, with Jenny and Billy relegated to supporting role status. I’ve always championed playwrights and artists of all stripes telling the story they want to tell, whether it takes an hour or four, but here I really would have liked for Bock to flesh out the play, and let us see more of Jenny. There were moments of great poignancy and heart-wrenching-ness, but they were few and far between and ended all too abruptly. For example, Billy comes to visit Emily once she has lost her sight, ability to hear and her sense of smell. As Billy sits alone with Emily on the couch, Emily talks to him about how she’s feeling and her fears about John and Jenny. Jenny accidentally walks in on this conversation, though she is undetected, and there’s a look in Celia Keenan-Bolger’s ever-evocative eyes that make you think her heart just dropped. Later, she confronts her father about Emily’s state; you feel for her and Keenan-Bolger does well with very little, but I wanted more. I wanted to see Jenny talking about this more, either with her father or with her unseen fiance/husband.

But, I suppose if my biggest gripe is that there wasn’t enough, it’s a pretty decent play. Indeed, in spite of this not being fleshed out enough for my taste and a couple of awkward moments in the direction, the compelling themes and terrific performances got me choked up more than once. (I suppose that isn’t exactly a criterion for a well-made play, but it told me I was engaged.) Reed Birney, always a favorite of mine, is affecting as the man trying to keep it all together. At one point, John says to Jenny something about what love is - the line is escaping me now but it had something to do with enduring and caring during the “worse” part of “for better or worse” - and Birney’s reading was so spot on, you instantly knew the kind of man John is and what his wife - in any state - means to him. And, in fact, we see what they mean to each in other in the play’s climactic finale, in which, loss of senses be damned, they both feel something.

A Small Fire is a small family drama that asks us to feel something. Any play that can do that is good in my book.