Think of Emily Bridges as a modern-day Job, if instead of being a “perfect and an upright man,” Job were a hard-boozing, foul-talking, hard-hatted, exasperatingly impatient construction-company boss who’s so tough and abrasive her own daughter can barely stand to be in the same room with her. In Adam Bock’s play A Small Fire, just opened at Portland Center Stage, Emily’s all of that, and like Job, she suffers a series of rapid-fire plagues that come crashing down on her head. Well, unlike Job, who was spared personally while all of his treasures and the people around him were destroyed. Emily’s friends and family feel some of the pain, too, but the brunt of the damage falls squarely on Emily herself.
At first that seems fitting, if a little overboard. After all, Emily’s an unpleasant person, a Type A in overdrive who’s unduly irritated by anything and anyone who gets in her way. But as the play progresses and some mysterious medical condition turns Emily into a bedridden isolationist – like the famous monkeys, she sees, hears and speaks no evil, or anything else – a little sympathy begins to seep in; a little self-awareness, possibly, on the part of the audience: what if you were locked inside yourself, your mind working clearly but unable to communicate in any way other than a “yes” or “no” squeeze of the hand? Did Emily, like Job, do anything to deserve this? Is “deserving” even part of the equation?
A Small Fire (the title refers to a mishap in the kitchen, a little thing near the opening of the play that signals disasters of much more moment to come) moves swiftly and compactly, a quick 80 minutes without intermission, and while it seems to spiral downward in that time it also ascends, or resolves: we arrive at a place of better understanding, which is also deeply mysterious and irresolvable. There are subtleties here, little turnings and revelations, and despite the horrible things that happen, a good deal of gentleness holds sway. In a way, Emily stands in for all of us, at least emotionally. Her losses reflect ones we’ve experienced ourselves, or ones we’ve stood around more or less helplessly and watched other people endure.
Bock springloads the action in A Small Fire with little coils of surprise, and I don’t want to give away the ballgame. But in case this all sounds like a horrible downer, I do want to stress that the play has a good deal of humor (as opposed to comedy: there aren’t a lot of one-liners or jokes) and a Chekhovian sense of sadness and happiness being symbiotically intermingled. Fate plays less of a role: these are postmodern contemporary characters, and things just happen. But when they happen, can we meet them with some semblance of grace?
Bock’s been a familiar presence at Center Stage. His play The Thugs was workshopped at the theater’s JAW festival in 2005, and later given a full production, followed by a production of The Receptionist that debuted at CoHo and was restaged at PCS, and another JAW show, San Diego, in 2012. Like A Small Fire, they were directed by Rose Riordan, who’s developed a fruitful working relationship with him. Yet another Bock play, The Typographer’s Dream, will play at PCS in October.
A Small Fire seems to me to have a more generous presence than The Receptionist or The Thugs, a deeper sympathy and understanding for the varying tugs and pulls on its characters. It creates four lovely acting vehicles, and maybe the biggest pleasure of watching Center Stage’s production is the joy of watching such fine craftsmanship in the art of acting. Peggy J. Scott is at the center of things as Emily, creating a character who’s abrasive and wryly funny and vulnerable and surprisingly sexy all at once: it’s a tough balancing act, but she handles it brilliantly. Tom Bloom, as John, the husband Emily ruthlessly and reflexively belittles, is a highly effective match, like sponge to water, soaking up Emily’s spills and taming her floods of emotion: he delivers a quiet and beautiful performance, filled with love and regret. Hollye Gilbert, as their grown daughter Jenny, who can’t quite handle her resentment over her mother’s casual cruelties, neatly deals with Jenny’s disappointments and sense of betrayal. And Isaac Lamb quietly lights up the stage as Emily’s construction-company sidekick, Billy, who softens her hard edges and makes sure the crew’s treated right and takes time for his own pleasures (don’t blame me if you develop a sudden enthusiasm for pigeon-racing). Lamb provides a presence of light and splendid humor: things rise and warm like baking bread in his presence.
Tony Cisek’s scenic design, which is dominated by set pieces that roll on and offstage as the need arises, cleverly accounts for the play’s quick shifts of location, and Diana Ferry Williams’ lighting is keenly attuned to the needs of the action.
Everything, in fact, works in service to the story, and to its characters, whose varying rides through the afflictions of their small corner of the universe are the story. At one point during the tribulations of Job, his wife offers some bitter advice: “Curse God, and die.” That’s not the choice that either Job or Emily makes. As that other great god of the theater, Samuel Beckett, put it: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Without giving anything away, let’s just say that Emily and John rise well and truly to Beckett’s challenge.
Learn much more about Bock and his approach to the theater in this Q&A interview with him by ArtsWatch’s A.L. Adams.
A Small Fire continues through March 23 on Portland Center Stage’s Main Stage. Ticket and schedule information here.