The Echo Theater Company’s production of “Firemen” by Tommy Smith is a show I’d like to drag anyone to who’s never attended a live theatre production and who doesn’t “get” what the big deal is, and plant their butts in a seat at the Atwater Village theatre.
“Wanna see what the big deal is?” I’d put to them. “Keep your eyes open for the next ninety minutes, you’ll find out.”
“Firemen” epitomizes what makes theatre “the big deal.” It is a sharp, smartly written play that frames a precise selection of human foibles in a fashion neither formulaic nor fawning. Other than a single fleeting and offhand remark there are no “firemen” in the Engine Company No. 9, Dalmatian petting, “heroes of 9/11” to be found in this work.
There are no flames, nor smoke in Smith’s play. We are, however, shown destruction and ruin which a conflagration leaves in its wake. Smith forces focus on that firestorm which we are all both source and victim of, that inferno of the flesh we ourselves fan, fuel and suffer, the smoldering spark of which is found at the core of the human heart.
Each grows as it consumes, each feeds upon itself, each can rage beyond our means of containment while mocking our efforts to try. Each has the promise of providing warmth against the cold, each can leave a wasteland of ash at its finish, and each, if we are not blinded by its fiery brilliance, holds the hope of illumination.
Director Chris Fields forewarns his audience of that potential for either blindness or revelation, and “pricks up” our ears with his jarring opening of the drama. It is the 1990’s. In a middle school’s detention room Ben (Ian Bamberg) the young star of the wrestling team is confined under the keen surveillance of Gary (Michael McColl) a world weary, worldly wise teacher.
Ben is accused of writing “inappropriate” letters to the school secretary. When the secretary, Susan (Rebecca Gray), ostensibly appears to meet the author of those communications the two commence an illicit affair that reflects the antics of angst that flesh is heir to.
Smith’s characters are succinctly chiseled and deliciously deceptive. His dialogue, like the best of its kind, speaks in two separate languages; one to be heard, the other discovered.
When Theseus enters the Minotaur’s lair he unraveled a length of thread as a means of retracing his escape out. From this myth the ancient Greek word “clew” meaning a ball of yarn found its way into our vocabulary: “clue”.
Smith supplies us clues.
Food is one.
Food seems a constant in the work, reflecting that which is consumed, fueling the appetite of both flame and flesh. Still more is hinted at when young Ben relates to Susan, now his lover, the first time he saw her, and watched her hands cutting carrots; a statement which finds a dark reverberation in the final scene.
In some ways Ben is sought out by all the adult characters as a means, albeit a desperate one, for addressing the perceived failures forged in the furnace of their own youth.
“When I was a young girl,” Susan divulges to him, “I thought everything would be different, but it’s the same. We’re not living on the moon.”
They all seek to tap into Ben’s youth, except Ben who only wants to escape it. But escape to where? Counselor Gary has interned himself in the isolation of the intellect.
Ben’s single working mom, Annie (Amanda Saunders), is committed to her son’s well being while blind to the reality of his “being”.
“I’m always confused,” she chimes, “but you can always talk to me.”
Like woodland creatures disorientated by the terrible might of a forest fire, Ben flees not from but into the flames.
He turns to Susan’s small son, Kyle (Zach Callison), who is also fatherless, seeking from him some clarifying connection. He finds no relief there, only violence and games, the paired doppelgangers of the weak.
He tells the younger boy, “We’re like the same, because we don’t have a larger dude around us.”
It is perhaps a pity that performances as wonderful as these cannot be encased in amber and preserved. Still the immediacy and impermanency of the stage adds to its radiance. In not one performance does a single false note betray the flowering and withering of the relationships portrayed, and every moment these actors play shimmers with emotional honesty.
Talent tiers talent.
Upon the solid support given by McColl, Saunders and Callison the relation between Bamberg and Gray is elevated to a greater consequence, upon that relationship is the character of Susan lifted to a prominence that demands our deliberation.
Gray’s every moment holds a depth to be delved. In the same instant she both entices and repels us with her misplaced sensualness, a sensualness that whispers of damage.
Fields has woven his support team superbly. Angel Herrera’s set is formed from equal parts of artistry and functionality meaning it is a perfect design. Drew Dalzell’s sound, Matt Richter’s lighting and Kathryn Poppen’s costumes add accent without causing intrusion which shows the strength they have in their crafts.
A good play can stand by itself. A good cast can uplift a good play. A good director can give a good play and good cast the possibility of flight.
Under Field’s hand “Firemen” soars.
Smith takes the subject matter of a teacher’s affair with her much younger student, normally the stuff of the tabloids, and elevates it to an invocative examination of that passionate folly which it is to be human. Smith imparts no tidy and pre-packaged solution in his piece. The best writers are too wise to believe they have the “answers”, knowing that the power of their craft is in offering the right “questions”.
Some may be disturbed by the play’s ending and that is as it should be, because what is disturbing is its truthfulness; the truth that the Minotaur is not within the labyrinth, but within ourselves.
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave
Atwater Village, CA 90039
Performances: Feb. 8 – March 16
Fridays at 8 p.m.: Feb. 21, 28; March 7, 14
Saturdays at 8 p.m.: Feb. 22; March 1, 8, 15
Sundays at 7 p.m.: Feb. 23; March 2, 9, 16
General admission: $25