A Small Fire @ Playwrights Horizons
I loved this play out of all proportion. I can't even tell you whether or not it's any good, I loved it that much. In the same way that I love the Shack Burger and street corner hot dogs and a $7.99 bottle of Il Bastardo, I can't be objective or critical about some things, so sue me, I'm just a girl. (tee hee! GLITTER)
Michele Pawk is Emily Bridges, a hard-ass contractor with a milquetoast husband named John, played by Reed Birney, and a daughter, Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger), whose impending marriage she disapproves of, loudly and often. Emily's the kind of woman who you can tell is mentally tapping her foot while you're talking, and the only person she can tolerate with any patience is her foreman, Billy, played by Victor Williams. Feelings, empathy, vulnerability are not where she's at, cosmically speaking. She argues with her foreman and her husband and bitches about her daughter's fiancé and when she starts to lose her physical senses, down at the low-impact range of things, you think, oh, it's a little farce about a woman who can't smell stuff! That's cute. She'll probably learn a Valuable Lesson. Then her taste buds go and it's still, well, this might be funny because the overdecorated wedding cake her daughter is testing obviously has no flavor, hence she is The Victor. And then!
I'm not sure how I got it into my head that this was going to be a comedy, but the plot blurb at Playwrights Horizons is wily both in what it hides and what it gives away: "WHEN A TOUGH-AS-NAILS CONTRACTOR FINDS HER SENSES SLIPPING on the brink of her daughter’s wedding, the impact on her family is nothing less than seismic." To me that screams humorous metaphor, not literal horror story. Only there's a clue right there in the ALL CAPS, because the next thing she loses is her eyesight, followed by her hearing, and what's really happening is a nightmare. Her senses aren't slipping, they're being stripped away without explanation or cause, and what's left is a woman—who by choice and by design has never let anyone in—suddenly finding herself with no other option. Even something as basic as locating the bed or getting to the bathroom is a Herculean feat. What's left to do but sit on the sofa and...sit on the sofa? Everything she trusted is gone.
What it reminded me of was this piece "I Lost a Sock" from the oratorio "Lost Objects" by Bang on a Can, which goes through a long litany of ordinary things that people lose all the time, socks and keys and maps and earrings, and also teeth and fathers and wives. In the process of intoning these random things, 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3, no emphasis is placed on any single item, so that they all hold the same weight and roll together and become mundane, and it builds into something that's not only harrowing but beautiful and sort of comforting.
If you made it the whole way through, I applaud you! Here are five thousand invisible gold doubloons. If not, I'll just tell you it concludes like this: "I lost my anger. / I lost my joy. / I lost my cynicism. / I lost my fear. / I lost my land. / I lost my resistance." Weird and amazing. It's not only what you lose, it's what you find.
And as Emily starts to shut down, she also opens up, both literally and metaphorically, as does John, and what I didn't see coming but seems perfectly obvious now is that the only sense she has left is touch. It's the only connection she can make. There's a line in this poem by Stanley Kunitz about a long-married couple that goes "Touch me, / remind me who I am," and that's where these two end, with a stunningly intimate sex scene that's intense and sad and funny—as well as exceptionally naked—while being completely, wildly, deeply joyous and unexpectedly life-affirming. (I know, right? Next week in the courts I'm changing my name to Kari Saint Adjective-Adverb. Look for it in the Times.)
This is one of those fine-boned dramas of small graces for which I am a particular sucker—which isn't to suggest that it's wispy or, I don't know, tubercular, but it feels like it could crack at any time if somebody so much as breathes in the wrong direction. Pawk pounds on the tough-as-nails part pretty hard at the beginning but really hits her stride when her life starts dropping around her. She's got a magnetic, earthy, Rosalind Russell no-nonsense vibe and a big laugh, and it's nice to see her paired with an equally strong partner, as she is here with Reed Birney, who's wonderful as that most undervalued of common miracles, a really good man. He has a couple of scenes where he just shines, one with Keenan-Bolger, where they're mapping out the seating plan for her wedding dinner, with a lovely short-hand understanding between them, and another during the reception, when he narrates the attendant merrymaking for his now-blind wife. It's not a role this man ever expected to play within the dynamic of this relationship, and watching him struggle to shift into place is a little like watching someone go through open heart surgery, if you get my angle. And by God, they're both adults! It's a marvel to behold.
Keenan-Bolger's part is tough but brave, I think, as a daughter who can't forgive her mother for who she was or what she's become. I always like it when there's one fish that just won't swim, a little resistance to wrapping everything up with a tidy bow (and props to playwright Adam Bock for not giving away all the answers). Williams delivers a late speech about challenges and opportunities that sounds a lot like a speech, but he's a solid force throughout and has a great rapport with Pawk, especially in a brief scene where he simply holds her hand and refuses to lie.
So maybe it was the impending high holy days or the close of a fairly melodramatic personal year, but the whole thing hit me hard, baby, like a sucker punch to the gut—I went in expecting a comedy, remember—and during the last five minutes I was pressing little fingernail half-moons into my palms to keep from sobbing out loud. Isn't that just like a girl? Crying during sex? Just be glad you weren't there—my hands were shaking so badly in the lobby afterward that I could hardly zip up my coat! I'm lucky I didn't walk into a car on my way to the saloon.
And isn't it funny that I started and ended 2010 with a naked play about marriage? WHAT DOES IT MEAN, LORD?