While the high-school kid in Mallery Avidon's queerSpawn, playing at Eclectic Theater now (see review here), suffers from feeling too much, the central character in Adam Bock's A Small Fire feels too little. Emily starts going numb early in the play. She has an upper-middle-class home, a construction-site mastery of profanity, and her own contracting company. Her sense of smell disappears (which is why she doesn't notice when she leaves a dishcloth on a hot burner, lending the play its title), then her sense of sight (leading to a scene in which her gentle husband sits with her at their daughter's wedding, explaining the action at all the other tables, giving Bock an excellent way to indulge in exposition), then her sense of hearing (allowing Emily's daughter to tearfully confess to her father, in her mother's presence, that she doesn't actually like the hard-ass woman who raised her).
But as Emily loses one set of feelings, she's forced to confront another, including the ambivalence of her marriage—"I didn't love you" she says to her husband about their wedding day—and the barrenness of her relationship with her daughter. Bock doesn't even approach an explanation of Emily's illness, content to leave it more magical than medical and keep A Small Fire more parable than play, though with perfectly convincing acting.
Teri Lazzara is a short, tough Emily whose flintiness only barely begins to soften toward the end of the story, and Gordon Carpenter is physically larger but meek and stutteringly uncertain as her husband, John. Sarah Coates vacillates convincingly—never pushing it too far—between wounded and guilt-ridden as the daughter who cannot bring herself to care as much about her sick mother as she wants her mother to care about her. But Ray Tagavilla as Billy, Emily's ever-loyal, tough-guy foreman on construction jobs, throws the play's one interesting curveball. Emily tells him to get John out of the house, out of caretaker mode, so Billy demands that he come over to his rooftop to drink beer and watch the end of a homing-pigeon race. ("You really don't take no for an answer," John says. "When she asks me to do things, I do 'em," Billy replies.)
Billy raises pigeons and is passionate about racing them. "Goddamn Mr. Buddha better be hauling ass," he says after getting a phone tip that one of his rivals' pigeons has already gotten home. ("Little Emerald," he fumes good-naturedly, "she's supersonic, that little fucking bird.") Then the text abruptly shifts gears, but Tagavilla rides the change with gorgeous subtlety. "You're not the only one who's had something like this," he says to John, his blustery East Coast accent softening a bit as he tells the story of Dion, "the only guy I ever loved," who died of AIDS in a hospice while the two were watching Rosie O'Donnell. "Not that Rosie killed him," Billy chuckles while sniffing back a few tears. It's a dangerous rainbow moment for any actor—little sunshine, little mist—that could quickly turn maudlin, but Tagavilla plays the scene with the raw, sudden, peak-and-valley texture of real-life conversations about death and grief. "You can try to shove everything back to the way it was, to try to approximate it, to almost be how you were before, or you can say, 'Everything's different and maybe I can be different,'" Billy says. "You gotta live a little bigger than you think you can."
That sounds horrifyingly cheeseball on paper, but Tagavilla has a way of turning himself inside out, of revealing messy emotions with dignity and control, that can make a scene, even in the least promising circumstances, buzz and glow. In the middle of A Small Fire's extended metaphor about material comfort, emotional disconnectedness, and middle-age numbness, he brings something that feels entirely, almost alarmingly, real.