Adam Bock’s A Small Fire plays out on dual tracks of drama and horror. Like any good drama and most good horror, the underlying power in the journey lies in its tribute to human survival. David Cecsarini directs a small, stellar cast of Milwaukee theatre icons in a very gripping story of a woman who is slowly becoming disconnected from the outside world.
Mary MacDonald Kerr is deeply inspiring as Emily Bridges. Emily has a very strong sense of drive and direction about her. She’s the head of a construction company who deals with a million problems at once. Kerr deftly manages the task of maintaining an appealing and approachable presence in her portrayal of a person who is also very abrasive and totally immersed in work. As Emily, Kerr is, "gruff but lovable." Not many actors can truly pull that off. It’s impressive when it works. It’s particularly impressive here as it is the case that Emily gradually loses her senses over the course of 75 intermission-less minutes. She first loses her sense of smell. Her sense of taste goes with it. Then she loses her sight. Finally she loses he hearing. It’s never really explained what’s going on. Evidently doctors just don’t know. There’s very, very deep horror in that. Kerr sits in a room completely unable to see or hear anyone else in it. She’s had her senses to rely on her whole life. Now they’re gone. It’s difficult to imagine anything more horrifying than that.
Jonathan Smoots plays her husband John. He's a nice guy who works in H.R. Smoots taps-into an endearing empathic energy as a man very much in love with his wife who is challenged to help her in whatever way he can. Smoots finds a valiant middle ground between powerlessness and restless compassion that serves the production well. Smoots’ heroism as John matched Kerr’s as Emily. John’s selflessness also speaks to a vulnerability that Smoots is able to articulate with breathtaking fluidity.
No one seems more struck by John’s devotion to Emily than their daughter Jenny. Emily Vitrano wisely takes elements of compassion from Smoots and elements of driven self-sufficiency in the role of Jenny. There’s a very natural sense of family about the three actors and it has a lot to do with the way Vitrano links them all together. Her mother’s abrasiveness seems to have kept Jenny at a distance her whole life. She’s getting married to a man her mother doesn’t like. She’s concerned that her father’s devotion to her mother is unhealthy. Vitrano treads the delicate border between bitterness and love for her mother in a very sophisticated portrayal of someone trying to move on with her life as her mother’s falls apart.
The family dynamic between Kerr, Smoots and Vitrano is given further definition by Mark Corkins in the role of Emily’s workplace assistant Billy Fontaine. Corkins summons an irresistible workin’ guy charm to the stage dynamic. What appears to be a minor supporting role early-on adds a striking depth to the story as Emily’s condition worsens.
The drama plays out on a minimal stage co-designed by Rick Rasmussen and Cecsarini. It’s a very cleverly thought-out stage design that allows just enough detail to give the impression of Emily’s world as it slowly dissolves around her. Aaron Sherkow’s lighting design and Cescarini’s sound design profoundly punctuate Emily’s sudden losses of sensation with notable impact. It’s delicately finessed. Those moments of loss are never over-rendered with production elements. Bock’s script never leans-into them with a whole lot of dialogue. This is deeply terrifying in its own way. There’s no warning when losses occur...they just happen. The cast does a brilliant job of exploring the emotional impact of those losses.
Next Act’s production of A Small Fire runs through Feb. 23 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act online.