Adam Bock's "A Small Fire," a melancholy off-Broadway drama from 2011 now in its first Chicago production at Steep Theatre, is only about 80 minutes long. But the changes it charts in its central character, a middle-aged woman named Emily Bridges, are massive and devastating.
Life for Emily (Melissa Riemer), a hard-driving woman more at home when hiring and firing workers on construction sites than when talking sweet stuff on the couch with her husband, is ticking along, as life does. But then there is a small, containable fire in the home she shares with hubby John (Robert Koon). Emily doesn't smell the titular diminutive blaze — which quickly makes her realize she can't actually smell anything at all.
Shortly afterward, she finds she cannot see anything. Or hear anything. She is reduced to communications by the squeeze of a hand.
Bock's device of putting her through such progressive trauma allows him to study the impact of adversity on an individual, and on the nuclear family, which suffers collateral damage. John and Emily have a daughter, Jenny (Julia Siple), who finds herself greatly discomforted by all these changes in her mother. So does one of Emily's underling colleagues, a fellow named Billy (James Allen), who finds his gruff boss falling apart and whose presence allows Bock to explore what happens in our workplaces when our mortality catches us unawares.
Jenny's discomfort is highly uncomfortable in and of itself. The character well knows that one is not supposed to dislike being around those one loves merely due to their changing beyond recognition. But it is an experience that won't be unfamiliar to folks dealing with loved ones who have Alzheimer's disease or early-onset dementia, or one of those other things that really changes people and, if we are all being honest, makes them less likable.
This kind of stress — all the worse for its introduction of guilt — is cropping up in a lot of plays at present, a consequence, perhaps, of our aging population. Watching the pain register on the excellent Siple's face at the very intimate Steep on Thursday night, I was put in mind of an intensely poignant line in Will Eno's recent Broadway play, "The Realistic Joneses," wherein a character with an ill spouse declares herself wary of "men making speeches and being sick." Bock is at pains to make John a very different type from his wife — less focused on work, a better parent and more of a natural nurturer. Those qualities only intensify the fallout he experiences from the changes in his wife.
"A Small Fire" is quite a good play — not least for the way Bock tries to make us feel what Emily feels. As she loses her sight, the theater lingers in darkness for a while, allowing us to catch some of her sensory deprivation. The director of this production, Joanie Schultz, captures that well, although she and her cast struggle in the latter half of the piece to retain the show's tension and momentum, which seem to dissipate just as the stakes for the characters are increasing. Part of the problem here is energy — John is a quiet guy and Koon is an honest actor, but the intensity of his feelings still have to energize and drive the play. Here and in the scenes with Billy there is a lot neutral space, too few really bold choices, too much not-much-of-anything, and you can feel the audience checking in and out, unsure of how captivating it finds these characters and their dilemmas.
One senses that all were at pains to avoid sentimentality, a fine impulse given what is transpiring. Bathos does not serve this script. But it's also important that the characters are empathetic, especially given the note of joyful rebellion with which the play ends — and Riemer, although another fine actor, makes Emily so cool to the touch that her initial vitality, which provides the requisite contrast with so much that follows, feels almost like a pejorative.
Simply put, we have to like her more to really feel alongside her. What she is going through, God knows, is all too familiar.
When: Through August 16
Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Tickets: $20-$22 at 773-649-3186