Although it takes a moment or two to pick up speed, Adam Bock’s play at Playwrights Horizons gathers momentum as it hurtles toward a conclusion that might have left me bereft but instead is surprisingly hopeful and heartening. A Small Fire is ultimately about what we can survive without, and how elemental love might become when there’s little left to feel with but your sense of touch. The play works metaphorically as it contemplates the stuff of relationships, but its content is quite brutal. I left the theatre feeling intrigued, but uneasy that once again, a ballsy middle-aged woman seemed to have been punished for leading her own singular life.

Emily Bridges (Michele Pawk) owns a construction company. She works in a man’s field in a man’s way, literally wearing pants and a hard hat, sauntering around construction sites swearing like the best of them. But while she might appear rough, and even upbraids her construction foreman for paying too much for a load of carpet, Bock establishes fairly early that Emily’s got a hidden soul and a basically big heart. Her care, however, is easier to express outside the confines of her small family. For instance, she’s concerned about a worker whose father is ill, and whose cousin was recently killed by a baseball bat wielded by her out-of-control son. But she has a harder time working up interest in her own daughter.

Emily trades stories about the workers with her foreman, Billy, a big teddy-bear of a guy whom she seeks out to trade confidences more often than she does her husband. John Bridges (the always wonderful Reed Birney) is a mild-mannered guy who adores his wife, probably more than she does him, and mediates patiently between her and their daughter, Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger). The two women, it seems, have never gotten along, and the daughter’s upcoming marriage to a man Emily expressly dislikes has salted a long-festering wound.

Bock spends perhaps 15 of the play’s 80-minute run time with short scenes of strangely awkward set-up. These small exchanges between two characters at a time aren’t really exposition, because we don’t learn a whole lot more than I’ve just shared about these people. Bock establishes that Jenny sides with her father in what she perceives as his bad marriage to her mother. He also indicates that John is happy with Emily, despite Jenny’s projections about her mother’s neglect. More than the family’s past, the first few scenes are in some ways about their future. Jenny and John sit at the kitchen table going over a seating chart for Jenny’s wedding as they discuss Emily and her difficult demeanor. Jenny wants John to leave Emily, a strange desire for a child to express to a parent so openly.

In these initial scenes of both over- and understatement, Bock seems to make his case for why it’s soon going to be okay to cut Emily off at the knees. That’s the only explanation I can think of for these preliminaries, since we don’t know the characters well enough to care about who gets seated next to whom at Jenny’s wedding. Even though Bock notes, in his print interview with Playwrights Horizons’ artistic director Tim Sanford, which is handed out in the theatre lobby, that there are perhaps 80 different characters mentioned in his play, we see only four of them onstage. The others are cited too fleetingly and schematically to inspire empathy or interest. They’re the wallpaper of the Bridges’ lives.

As a result, Bock seems to be telling more than he’s showing in those first few scenes. Even when Emily fails to smell the small fire of the play’s title, which she’s inadvertently started by leaving a napkin near a stove burner, the play’s events seem prosaic.

But that insignificant fire augurs the strange things that start happening to Emily.When she announces that she’s in fact lost her sense of smell and taste, and that the doctor she’s seen can’t do anything for her, the play takes on a new sheen of urgency. Suddenly, the woman who doesn’t fit easily into her husband and daughter’squotidian domestic world now has physical excuses for feeling alien. Emily can’t taste the wedding cake Jenny brings to her parents’ house for approval. While John revels in its lusciousness, Emily complains that it tastes like chalk. John is disconcerted by his wife’s reaction, but Jenny thinks Emily’s uncharitable response to the dessert represents only how much her mother hates her fiancée.

As Emily abruptly, inexplicably begins to lose her senses, each of John’s is suddenly heightened by comparison. For no apparent reason, as the couple sits at home talking, Emily loses her sight. She comes to Jenny’s wedding anyway, helped into her dressy clothes by her daughter in a moment of mutually uncomfortable physical intimacy. But at the wedding reception, Emily sits alone on a chair, heart-breaking in her new disability, feeling both invisible and conspicuous because she can’t navigate away from the chair in which John has placed her.

In one of the play’s most touching scenes, John brings Emily champagne—which she refuses, since she can’t really taste it—and sits beside his wife, holding her hand and recounting the happy events taking place off stage. John vividly and joyfully describes someone catching the wedding bouquet, and the sometimes fraught results of the seating chart he and Jenny prepared earlier. Emily feigns polite interest, but she’s clearly terrified and perplexed by what’s happening to her, and finally admits she needs to go home. Soon after, she suddenly loses her hearing.

Pawk plays Emily with a beautiful mix of compassion, empathy, and irony. She seems to realize that in many ways, her character is more an absurdist symbol than she is flesh and blood. But at the same time, Pawk commits fully and convincingly to the devastated emotional response people must have to losing their senses after a full lifetime of enjoying them. When she realizes her hearing is gone, along with her sight, her smell, and her sense of taste, Pawk plays Emily’s reaction with palpable, wrenching terror.

Bock writes short, small scenes with a compacted emotional tension and energy. Director Trip Cullman moves the four actors gracefully and simply across a suggestive set by Loy Arcenas that allows the scenes to fade quickly into each other, and allows the actors to stay in character as they move from place to place. Pawk and Birney transport their emotions from moment to moment with equal fluidity and grace. If the situation is unconvincing as realism, Bock and Cullman manage to create a poignant Absurdism, one in which John and Emily find their way back to one another almost as a result of their changed circumstances. The play ends—spoiler alert—with this ordinary middle-aged couple having fairly graphic if simulated sex, after which Emily gratefully proclaims that “I’m still in here, John.” Bock and Cullman offer a moving affirmation of how people can continue to connect, even with very little left to go on.

Pawk and Reed manage to wring gravity and nuance from their cipher-like characters, and their chemistry with one another makes them convincing as a long-married couple. They find their way to something essential with one another, despite the adversity Emily’s mysterious deterioration presents and whatever emotional and physical drifting might have predated their new challenges. But what does Bock mean to suggest with these metaphors of loss and disability? What’s his central point? That if we love one another, we can overcome ever-worsening physical and emotional odds? That we need to stand by one another no matter what? That we can rise to the occasion of whatever life throws at us, regardless of how inhumane and horrific are the failings of our bodies and our ever more imminent deaths?

In the play’s best speech, Billy (Victor Williams), the company foreman, tells John that he should see Emily’s predicament as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, as a chance to be “bigger” about his life. It’s a beautiful line (I’ve probably misquoted it here), which I heard it to mean that we can often find reserves in ourselves that don’t ennoble us so much as they open us to new ways of thinking about our lives. John tells Jenny—his small-souled daughter, who can’t bear to deal with her mother’s new inability to communicate or to see her, since Jenny has always felt invisible to Emily—that it’s not what you get from a relationship, it’s what you give that matters.

This might be an overstatement, but Bock uses it as evidence of John’s growth, not into martyred selflessness, but into a dawning understanding that he can do this, that he can indeed enlarge himself, that he can become Emily’s conduit to the world, even as her body conspires to narrow her existence only to what she can touch. Reed plays John’s developing strength beautifully, with quiet empathy and a great deal of grace.

Williams is very good, too, as Billy, the sympathetic foreman who insists on visiting Emily and whose presence, for a moment, brings her back to herself. She can still talk, but the others can only communicate with her by squeezing her hand once for “yes” and twice for “no.” This limits their dialogue; Emily can only ask simple questions or monologue, speaking from the desperate, dark and quiet center of her isolation like someone in a Beckett play.

But when Billy sits beside her on the couch grasping her hand and signaling his responses, the two really seem to be talking, because she’s so glad to see him and their connection is so somehow genuine. The devastating scene underlines the strength of character Emily has lost—for a moment, she’s once again the swaggering, powerful, butch boss-woman whom Billy loves and admires. But then, in the very next moment, she needs help to the bathroom, and she dismisses Billy, humiliated.

Billy tries to relieve John by getting him out of the house, up to Billy’s roof to visit the homing pigeons Billy raises and flies. Their scenes, too, are sweet, if a bit too highly symbolic. The birds determined to find their way back to Billy, even after they’ve been driven long distances and released to test their ability to return, provide an almost too-clear analogy for Emily and John’s trial. But up on his roof, Billy embodies the largess of spirit he wishes for John.

It turns out that Billy is gay, and lost a partner some years ago to AIDS, a story he tells as he’s trying to convince John to take the challenge of Emily’s illness and let it change him for the better. The scene is somewhat surprising; although earlier scenes refer obliquely to Billy’s sexuality, that he talks about his past and present male partners so matter-of-factly is both refreshing and strangely unmotivated. I appreciated Billy’s references to a generation of gay men dying of AIDS; we’re too quickly forgetting the ravages of the 1980s.

The common cause Billy forms with John and Emily reminds his straight friends that others, too, have and will suffer terrifying, compromising, baffling illnesses. But on the other hand, Billy functions as the too saintly, finally external, non-family member, gay character who generously assists the straight couple’s plot trajectory and transformation.

I was moved by A Small Fire, even as I was disconcerted by watching yet another strong, middle-aged female character be stripped of her power and her dignity to serve the purposes of the plot and the playwright’s point. And my colleagues in disability studies would no doubt suggest that Bock’s play is another in a long time of American dramas and films that use disability as a metaphor, rather than examining what it means as a way of being in its own right.

But as a metaphor, Emily and John’s plight stands as a surprisingly moving reminder of how damaged we all are, and how helplessly at the mercy of our inevitably failing bodies. A Small Fire’s contribution, perhaps, is to remind us that our excuses for not rising to the challenge of love and commitment are entirely inadequate. Emily and John discover ways to reconnect and, in the process, Emily finds reasons to stay alive, to stay literally in touch, and to embrace even a compromised intimacy as one for which it’s worth living.

The Feminist Spectator

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