A Small Fire
New City Theatre, 1404 18th Ave., 800-838-3006, soundtheatrecompany.org. $15–25. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat. plus Mon., June 9 & 16. Ends June 21.
We meet the confident Emily, who runs a construction business, trading dirty jokes with a foreman on a job site. She’s a foul-mouthed, middle-aged broad, and you wonder if she might have sexual designs on the younger Billy (Ray Tagavilla). But then Emily (Teri Lazzara) returns to a very different home life. Unlike the intimate familiarity she shares with Billy, here she’s got a cowed husband, John (Gordon Carpenter), and an exasperated adult daughter, Jenny (Sara Coates), who’s about to wed. And as with most daughters of alpha females, Jenny is defined by her mommy issues.
Then—let’s get the big plot twist out of the way early—the indomitable Emily is struck by a degenerative disease, and suddenly the shit gets real. In Adam Bock’s affecting 2011 drama, directed by Julie Beckman for Sound Theatre Company, we watch Emily gradually lose her independence and dignity. The old walls between her arm’s-length husband and estranged daughter are finally breached. Once so free and proud, she’ll eventually need their constant care and supervision.
In outline, I know, this sounds like a disease-of-the-week TV movie. Yet Lazzara makes Emily entertaining as hell; her lovable, cussin’ grumpiness reminds you of Melissa McCarthy. And there are unexpected laughs amid the pathos. As the caretaker husband, John becomes the natural foil for Emily’s brashness, yet Carpenter and Lazzara temper these scenes enough to keep the humor from becoming sitcommy. Coates is equally convincing as the aggrieved Jenny—if raised not by a tiger mother, then some near cousin in the jungle. And as Emily’s condition worsens, this parent becoming almost childlike, the cast keeps the play from drowning in despair.
Beckman also deserves credit for cleverly using this tiny, borrowed performance space. Emily starts the play downstage, hale and hearty. By the end, she’s burrowed far back in her bedroom, defenseless.