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A Small Fire

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With A Small Fire, playwright Adam Bock has created a tightly constructed, realistic drama of great poignancy about a catastrophic illness. He has also slyly subverted nearly every expectation a savvy audience member will project onto this scenario. This is perhaps to be expected from the creator of invigoratingly surreal black comedies like The Receptionist.

Emily (Lily Knight) is the tough-minded and profane head of an East Coast construction company. She is impatient, demanding, and despises any sign of weakness. Her husband, John (Michael Mantell), provides the nurturing spirit in their marriage. She has a prickly relationship with her daughter, Jenny (Mackenzie Kyle), which seems closer to a fragile cease-fire than a loving bond. Perhaps her closest attachment is with her co-worker/protégé, Billy (Steven O’Mahoney.) Though she views his warmhearted generosity as a business liability.

When Emily carelessly leaves a dishtowel too close to the stove and doesn’t notice it burning, we assume that the problem is memory. But it turns out to be far more mysterious, as an unnamed ailment robs her of smell, taste, sight, and, finally, hearing in quick succession. This fiercely independent woman is forced into a state of total vulnerability as she becomes reliant on John for everything.

Bock’s careful subversion of audience expectation, whether in the Lily/John role reversal, the emotional distance of the mother/daughter relationship that isn’t neatly resolved, or the casual revelation that hulking construction worker Billy is gay, all pay off by infusing his scenes with a freshness that banishes any trace of bathos.

Alana Dietze directs the play with an economy and precision that are perfectly in sync with the script, shepherding the cast to multi-layered performances. Knight’s Emily is a finely textured creation carefully delineating the character’s physical decline, but never allowing us to forget the indomitable life force within. She is perhaps most moving in those moments when she sits on the couch unaware of the conversations going on around her. Mantell matches her in quiet power, selfless love, and tender care. Their nearly wordless lovemaking, at a point where little else can reach Lily, is a brave and beautifully apt coda to the play.

Kyle’s Jenny is unapologetically “Daddy’s Girl,” though we clearly see how conflicted and helpless she feels in the wake of the enormous changes in her mother. Billy gets the only lyrical outburst in a speech to John that opens the door to the grief he felt over his partner’s death. O’Mahoney does a splendid job with the words, but watch how his hands transform from the stolid and capable instruments we have seen on the construction site to something altogether more light and delicate, punctuating his thoughts and unconsciously mimicking the carrier pigeons he raises.

A Small Fire packs an amazing amount of power into a concise 90 minutes. It is a feat that demands to be experienced.

Atwater Village Theatre   April 25 – May 31, 2015  (runs in rep with Row After Row)



Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.