Brutally Beautiful

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Why do we go to the theater?

I realize that's a loaded question, especially in Los Angeles at this particular moment - but how you answer that question will determine if Adam Bock's new play A Small Fire will grab you or repel you.

If your answer to "why art?" has to do with entertainment and distraction, A Small Fire is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, words like 'the human condition', 'honesty', and 'catharsis' pepper your answer, Mr. Bock's brutally beautiful play at the Echo Theater Company is a must see.

A Small Fire swirls around Emily: our difficult protagonist, who's played fearlessly by Lily Knight. You've met people like Emily before and chances are folks described them as "challenging." Emily is tough as nails on the outside. She runs her successful construction business in the field with a hard hat and a swagger. She's at home with her crew and quick with a caustic laugh. At home things aren't quite so easy. Her daughter is about to get married and let's just say this mother-daughter relationship isn't going to find its way on a Hallmark card any time soon. It's hard to like Emily. She's the kind of person who says honest things that really sting.

Without giving too much away, the play's dramatic engine is what happens as Emily is gradually cut off from the world. This is a difficult and jarring journey. Part of that is the circumstances but there's also a harshness to the structure itself. Mr. Bock has a lot of ground to cover quickly so he writes short abrupt scenes that at first seem clumsy like a young playwright. It's difficult to find your way in -- or even decide if you want to join this staccato rhythm.

But like his heroine's hard shell there's a careful method: the playwright is laying a foundation that he can push against in later scenes. So when we finally get to exhale, it's worth it.

A Small Fire is one of those plays that you appreciate more when it's complete -- once you see all the pieces together. Not because it's a plot-driven puzzle but because in hindsight you appreciate the artistry and restraint. Mr. Bock's play, and the Echo Theater Company's production, is remarkably brave in capturing the ugly, though honest, parts of life. The cast are heroic in charting difficult arcs that are dependent on the audience, at least in part, not liking them. That's hard for both actor and audience -- but it's worth it.

When A Small Fire finally finds its way to its beautiful, moving climax, we are reminded of what's truly important: the sights, the sounds, the people and feelings that make this difficult life worth living: in short, what it means to be alive in all its pain and glory.

Isn't that why we go to the theater?

A Small Fire plays at the Echo Theater Company in Atwater Village through May 31.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running time: one hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission.