A Small Fire
If tomorrow I find myself completely without the majority of my sensory powers that only yesterday seemed perfunctory, what would be left for me in life? No smell, no taste, no sight, no hearing? What effects would this catastrophic shift have on my relationships – my family, my friends? How would their lives shift? Could they handle it? Could I? What possible flame of hope would be possible for my future? For our futures together? On what basis could I begin my life again? Our lives together again?
These are some of the questions that Adam Bock’s gripping and tightly-scripted A Small Fire arouse within us as we witness a headstrong woman fully-in-command of her life and everyone around her suddenly experience a mysterious and disastrous turn of health with no explanation of what, how, or why. Desiree Rogers is that woman, Emily Bridges, in Shotgun Players’ latest, not-to-be-missed production; and her award-worthy performance is reason enough to rush to buy a ticket. But fortunately, she is also surrounded by a top-notch cast and is supported by an exceptional director and creative team, resulting in a production that grabs and holds its audience’s attention in each minute of the fast-paced, emotion-packed ninety of its duration.
Emily Bridges is the big boss and owner of Bridges Construction Company who has little patience for chitchat or fools. On the job she hammers out orders to her foreman, Billy. Though she seems to have some affection for him, she does not hesitate to correct him harshly over what she sees as misjudgments – usually with a few four-letter words thrown in. At home, she is never far away from her Blackberry – even when having a welcome-home cocktail with her easy-going, soft-spoken husband, John – snapping to Billy on the other end of the phone, “Tell him I’m going to run him over with my car if I have to come down there.” John is gingerly trying to discuss the upcoming marriage of their daughter, Jenny; but in one-word responses, Emily barks “Nothing” on what they should give her and her intended as a wedding present and “Why?” when he says, “We’ve got to be happy for them.”
In the opening scenes of our meeting Emily, Desiree Rogers makes it clear Emily is the kind of boss, wife, and mother who takes no prisoners. She is a killer in every respect if her wishes are not followed. The intensity she brings to her work life – which clearly is her main focus in life – is palpable as she pronounces final consonants with a sharp and sustained click and as her face never fails to hide any sense of disgust or dismissal that she is thinking as someone else is speaking of something she does not approve. While she softens her demeanor momentarily when sitting next to her husband on the couch with her Coke and whiskey, the pause is short; and her quick-to-judge responses even to him quickly return.
Dixon Phillips’ John is in great contrast to Desiree Rogers’ Emily. His human resources profession is evident as he tries to cajole and smooth the rough edges of his wife. His love of her is clear even when she does not always respond in a likened manner. With a golly-gee kind of manner, he persuades her that she should be happy their daughter is in love even as her first reaction is to dismiss that altogether. We sense in John a trooper who has had a bit of a hard row to plow in this relationship but one he gives it a good and sincere go every day he lives with his wife.
With daughter Jenny, John is totally relaxed. When together, the two clearly enjoy a little gossip while having fun planning table settings for the upcoming wedding reception. While she is full of smiles and hugs with her dad, Leigh Rondon-Davis’s Jenny quickly hardens in face and voice when the subject of her mom arises. Typical from her are responses to her dad like “I don’t know how you put up with her” or “I’m not comfortable around her.” The high-cheeked smiles directed at her dad immediately turn into narrow-eyed frowns at the mention of her mom.
And then Emily fails to smell smoke coming from the kitchen. A small mistake? Maybe due to a little too much whiskey or maybe due to being annoyed about the wedding or thinking about work? At first, denial is the immediate response by her. At most, Emily is embarrassed and takes extra baths, concerned others might smell the body odor she cannot. While Jenny is quick to dismiss her mother’s turn of events, John is clearly worried, even experiencing in some weird kind of over-reacting empathy a heightened sense of smells all around him.
When lack of taste follows, Jenny still dismisses it as “That’s nothing,” and Emily becomes a bit impatient with herself and even more curt with Jenny. But when no one is around as the lack of both smell and taste clearly sinks in, we see for the first time Desiree Roberts’ Emily succumb to a brief but distinct look of worried scare on her face.
That bit of transformation is just the beginning of the shifts and changes we will watch as her Emily first slowly and then with increasing speed deteriorates before us. The face that once spoke volumes in its snarls, raised eyebrows, or upturned lips now becomes one that is mostly blank as one by one, some unnamed malady robs her of yet another of her senses. As we watch stunned by the transformation before us, her face wrinkles and ages; her eyes become hollow spheres; and her body becomes limp and unresponsive to her desire simply to lift a foot to remove a slipper.
How in that state can a wedding still occur, a company be run, or a many-year marriage continue? Can a mother-daughter rift be healed? Can a husband who has earlier admitted to his daughter about Emily, “I can’t live without her” find a way still to live his own life?
These are also tough questions like those that many people face every day when sudden illnesses strike out of nowhere. In his script, Adam Bock provides both hope and also harsh reality. Life is not a fairy tale where everything turns out happy, but it is also not always a Shakespeare tragedy where all are doomed in the end. Maybe not all will be changed in relationships for the better just because one party is now sick; but also it can be true that a relationship on shaky grounds can find a new, actually beautiful foundation to build something different for the future.
Much of the hope that Adam Bock instills into his play initiates from the fourth character, Billy, the jovial, often joking foreman who is the epitome of a good friend – foremost to Emily but in the end, most importantly to John. Nick Trengove’s Billy is a refreshing spark of finding joy in life every time he enters the room. Even when the earlier Emily is berating him, he seems almost to appreciate the correction and is able to learn and move on. When he lets his presence be known to the later, usually unresponsive Emily, her sullen, still face brightens with a smile and a laugh that is a reminder to her and to us that she is still very much alive inside.
As a gay man, Billy’s life experiences through the AIDS years have taught him a lot about harsh realities of life; and those learnings help open a path to hope. That the path includes homing pigeons, a few beers, and some advice from him to John while they watch birds in a race is part of the fun in a play where laughs might otherwise be few. Inspired by a few wise words from his younger friend, John returns home where a silent touch and a surprise snuggle light a small fire of hope for a new future with his wife.
Mary Ann Rodgers directs A Small Fire using every second as a potential moment for impact. Not only are the scenes themselves powerful in her allowing the current emotions and reactions of the characters to flow with no unnecessary restraint or exaggeration, but the scene transitions themselves are integral to the overall affect. Watching in the dimmed light the characters themselves (versus stagehands) shift a couch into a bed – meticulously and lovingly fluffing pillows and taking the wrinkles out of a spread – turns a scene change into a moving moment that frankly drew my tears. Inserting a wild, frenzied tornado of moves and screams by an otherwise non-reposing Emily hits the target in reminding us that inside that sedentary, non-communicative form on the bed, a person still lives. While this cast deserves many kudos, much of the play’s power also comes from outstanding direction.
Further, much credit of the evening’s success also goes to the shadowed, shifting lighting scene designed by Courtney Carson and the theatre-surrounding sounds designed by James Ard that often are magnified for us while unheard by Emily. Equally, the flexible scenic design of Malcolm Rodgers transforms quickly but meaningfully from harsh construction site to cozy apartment to celebratory wedding venue and most profoundly, to the sick bed of Emily.
As wonderful and compelling is Adam Bock’s script, Mary Ann Rodgers’ direction, and the stellar performances of the rest of the cast, the resounding reason not to miss Shotgun Players’ A Small Fire is the stunning performance of Desiree Rogers as Emily. I doubt I will ever see again another construction hard hat or a carefully made sofa bed that I do not think of her unforgettable portrayal.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
A Theatre Eddys Best Bet Production
A Small Fire continues in live performance through June 12, 2022 on the Ashby Stage at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, CA. Streamed performances are available June 8-19, 2022. Tickets for both are available at https://shotgunplayers.org/.
Photo Credits: Ben Kratz