"A Small Fire" features a foul-mouthed character more pathetically sad than dramatically moving.
When stage characters lose their faculties, we expect them to find their lyric voices. That expectation holds even when, as is the case with the stricken heroine of Adam Bock’s new play, “A Small Fire,” that voice wasn’t very pretty to begin with. But this foul-mouthed woman, the owner of a construction company, suffers more than the loss of speech — along with her sight, smell and hearing — at the scribe’s hands. The poor thing is also robbed of the kind of interior character life that might make her plight dramatically moving, instead of merely pathetically sad.
We no sooner meet Emily Bridges (Michele Pawk), the tough-as-boots owner and manager of her own construction company, than this strong and independent woman begins to lose the precious faculties she has always taken for granted. Her sense of smell goes first, followed by her hearing, until she is reduced to a pitiful lump sitting in a corner of the sofa, dependent on the touch of a hand to let her know she’s not alone.
But things were out of joint in this overblown (if underwritten) weeper, lugubriously directed by Trip Cullman, long before it came to this.
Dirty mouth and ballsy attitude aside, Emily was a closed character even before her catastrophe, seemingly unaware of how alienated she had become from her sensitive saint of a husband (Reed Birney, trying his best to give this worm some backbone) and vehemently bitter daughter (Celia Keenan-Bolger, who can’t get past the sulking). The concern Emily has for her workers and the hint of warmth she shows to her hulking job foreman (played with a streak of sweetness by Victor Williams) are the only indications that she isn’t as unfeeling as she appears.
But these are slim pickings on which to build a character, and Pawk, a Broadway stalwart who won a Tony in “Hollywood Arms,” seems uncomfortable taking up that burden. Thesp makes the most out of the metaphorically weighted Big Moment at the end of the play when Emily is given the insight to acknowledge her long dammed-up feelings. But for all her physical swaggering and verbal bluster, there’s an innate grace and delicacy about Pawk that makes Emily an awkward fit for her.
Unlike the stricken heroines of other realistically unmoored plays like “Wit” and “Wings,” Emily is further alienated by being denied the services of a decent doctor — not even an articulate therapist or social worker who might have provided some hint about the nature of her nasty medical condition. But no, this is a character who was created to suffer for sins the playwright hasn’t clearly identified, but expects the audience to take on faith.