Desiree Rogers and Dixon Phillips in “A Small Fire” by Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. Credit: Benjamin Krantz

In Adam Bock’s A Small Fire, we watch a woman lose her senses through a mysterious disease, yet she persists and preserves her humanity.    

Many of us have wondered how we would cope with severe disability or illness. How would we be able to manage if we could no longer walk or lost the capacity to reason? But what if those two vital abilities were functioning, but we lost our senses of smell, taste, hearing, and sight? We could think, feel, talk, and touch, but we would be severely isolated and alone. A Small Fire explores how one exists when the inner life remains as the outer life fails.  

That is the fate that ultimately befalls middle-aged Emily (Desiree Rogers), an indomitable, hard-driving owner of a construction company, a woman equally in control at the building site and at home with her mild human resources professional husband John (Dixon Phillips) and disgruntled daughter Jenny (Leigh Rondon-Davis).

We first meet Emily at a noisy construction site as she and trusted associate Billy (Nick Trengove) sort out the myriad issues needed to keep the project running smoothly. Emily is in her element — exciting, competent, and brusque. And she is the same at home, quick to blurt out whatever she thinks, even if it’s to criticize her daughter’s fiancé. Daughter Jenny’s complicated relationship with Emily becomes apparent when Jenny confides to her father that she doesn’t want her mother to attend her wedding.

But then, little by little, Emily’s body betrays her, starting with the small fire that Emily doesn’t smell. Then, Emily can’t taste her daughter’s wedding cake sample. And by the time of the wedding, Emily has lost her sight.

Leigh Rondon-Davis and Desiree Rogers in A Small Fire by Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. Credit: Benjamin Krantz

A Small Fire is not entirely a tragedy, despite Emily’s tragic situation. Obie Award-winning playwright Bock’s writing never veers into mawkishness. The play contains many memorable scenes crowded into the one-act, 90-minute production. In a poignant moment, Emily’s nurturing husband sits with her at Jenny’s wedding reception and describes all the guests’ behavior. Emily must simply sit and listen, although her emotions are roiled and fraught. In another meaningful interlude, Billy sadly confides to John what it meant to lose his partner to AIDS. In a surprising and dramatic final scene, Emily’s strength and determination help her release some physical pleasure with John.

Mary Ann Rodgers’ direction is first-rate, and the actors all excel in their performances. But kudos go to Rogers, whose performance as Emily is exceptional. In the beginning, when she is striding around the building site, or later, when she is slumped over, in her bathrobe, manipulating and kneading her hands, we believe her, we understand her, and we empathize with her (not that she would want that).

One final thought about A Small Fire: Emily’s condition is never diagnosed, and we never see her getting any treatment, outside help, assistance, or therapy — physical or otherwise. Although I wondered about this, I told myself that Emily’s disease is symbolic and metaphorical, and what we are watching is theater. After all, A Small Fire is about how one deals with the emotions arising out of adversity, not the adversity itself.

A Small Fire runs live at the Ashby Stage through June 12. Proof of vaccination and masks are required to attend in-person performances. General admission ticket prices are $28 – $40. On May 26, tickets are $7 for those 25 years and under (M.A.D. Night). Reservations are encouraged.

In addition to live, in-person performances, Shotgun offers video-on-demand performances with closed captioning from June 8 through June 19. There will be a special haptic tour and performance for blind and low vision patrons on Sunday, May 29 (with partner Gravity Access) at 3:30 p.m., followed by the performance at 5 p.m.

More information can be found at 

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...