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A Small Fire

The estimable Michelle Pawk plays a woman losing her sensory perceptions in Adam Bock's poignant new play. logo
Michele Pawk and Reed Birney in A Small Fire
(© Joan Marcus)
A debilitating illness can completely change the dynamic of a marriage, for better or for worse. It's a little bit of both in Adam Bock's poignant new play, A Small Fire, receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons. Sensitively directed by Trip Cullman, the work showcases a fine, four-person cast led by the estimable Michelle Pawk.

As the play begins, construction company owner Emily Bridges (Pawk) appears to be a healthy, strong-willed woman whose marriage to the mild-mannered John (Reed Birney) is rocky at best. Moreover, their union is further strained by the upcoming nuptials of their daughter, Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger), as Emily does not approve of the groom.

However, that turns out to be the least of her problems, as it's soon revealed that Emily is losing her sensory perceptions, such as her ability to smell, taste, see, and hear. This mysterious illness forces John into the role of caretaker, and it's not at all certain if he'll be able to handle it.

In a telling scene, John confesses to Jenny that after finding out Emily was losing her sense of smell, his own experience of it seemed to increase, as if he was suddenly savoring something that he never knew was so fragile. The illness also forces Emily to reevaluate her attitudes towards the people in her life, particularly John. "I didn't love you," she tells him as she grows more and more dependent upon his help. "But I love you now."

Pawk effectively conveys the ups and downs of Emily's journey within the play. She radiates strength and confidence at the outset, which crumble but never completely disappear as her condition worsens and her fear threatens to overwhelm her. Birney is pitch-perfect, finding the moments of humor in the script and bringing a fiercely committed passion to his role. Keenan-Bolger captures Jenny's conflicted feelings towards a mother she never really loved, or at least never understood.

Rounding out the cast is Victor Williams as Billy, Emily's employee and good friend, who shines in a late-in-the play monologue that recalls Billy's own experience caring for his former partner Dion, whom he eventually lost to AIDS.

The play occasionally struggles to strike the right note. In particular, the opening scene feels overwritten, as Bock tries too hard to establish what Emily is like before her illness sets in. However, it does include an amazing moment when the background noise of Robert Kaplowitz's excellent sound design suddenly cuts out and the audience observes Emily in complete silence for several impactful moments -- a dramatic precursor to the way Emily will soon experience the world.

As the play continues, the rhythm and flow of the dialogue starts to feel more organic. Furthermore, the playwright and director wisely never let the action devolve into melodrama, focusing instead on the complex array of feelings that all of the characters possess.

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