Although loosely connected by concerns with nontraditional gender roles and a certain naturalistic pitch in their respective mises-en-scène, the true common denominator between the duo of full-length one-acts making their L.A. debut at Echo Theatre Company may simply be in the superlative performances put up by the Echo ensemble.
Chief among them is Lily Knight’s searing turn as Emily Bridges, the take-charge, albeit unfeeling New York construction company owner who anchors A Small Fire, Adam Bock’s potent 2011 study of a family whose emotional fault lines are exposed by catastrophic illness.
The play tracks Emily’s contentious relationship with her resentful, attorney-daughter Jenny, (Mackenzie Kyle), and her passionless marriage to her warmly nurturing husband, John (Michael Mantell), as she becomes afflicted with a mysterious ailment that progressively robs her of four of her five senses. As Emily is increasingly cut off from the outside world and goes from abrasive self-sufficiency to becoming fully dependent on her family, she is forced to finally become in illness the accepting, feeling person that eluded her in her active life.
Director Alana Dietze’s sensitive staging successfully resists the material’s inherent sentimentality, and the production benefits from Matt Richter’s low-key lighting and a likable, nuanced portrayal by Steven O’Mahoney of Emily’s caring work subordinate. But it is Bock’s virtuoso writing and sense of truth that lifts the play from a run-of-the mill melodrama about baby boomer aging.
The same cannot be said for Row After Row, Jessica Dickey’s lighthearted if glancing 2014 look at the insular world of Civil War re-enactors.
The play opens just after the annual performance of Pickett’s Charge as lifelong friends Tom (John Sloan) and Cal (Ian Merrigan) meet for their traditional postshow drink at a Gettysburg watering hole. The men are scandalized, however, to find their table occupied by Leah (Jennifer Chambers), a New York transplant whose participation in the re-enactment as a Confederate infantry soldier they consider an act of gender anachronism.
It’s a funny premise that is ably milked by director Tara Karsian on Amanda Knehans’ weathered, fence-slat set. And while Dickey gleefully skewers the arcane obsessions of the “living historian” community, she inexplicably drops the play’s implicit critique of all historical representation as a reification of hegemonic ideologies to unconvincingly redeem the re-enactors via a series of laugh-killing flashbacks to the “real-life” objects of their callow simulacra.
A Small Fire (GO!) and Row After Row play in repertory at Echo Theater Company, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater; through May 31. (310) 307-3753, echotheatercompany.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this review had the wrong spelling of Ian Merrigan.
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