Another new theater company? In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, a group called the Signature Theatre has established itself at Arlington's Gunston Arts Center. Headed by two accomplished souls -- artistic director Eric D. Schaeffer has distinguished himself locally both as a set designer and director of musicals, among them the Arlington Players' superb production of "Sunday in the Park With George," while managing director Donna Lillard has a great many fund-raising, community service and performing credits to her name -- the fledgling enterprise is already thinking big. "In the coming years," reads their promotional literature, "we'll be presenting comtemporary plays that focus on all facets of life, restaging some old classics, and bringing new life to the American musical." Whew.
For its inaugural production, Signature has come up with a puzzling choice. Sally Nemeth's "Mill Fire," which premiered last year at Chicago's Goodman Theatre and enjoyed a subsequent run in London, is a brooding, rather static essay on the loss, grief and insecurity caused by a deadly fire in an Alabama steel mill. Long on atmosphere but short on plot, the play employs elements of both dream and documentary, but never really settles comfortably into one style.
"Mill Fire" unfolds in non-linear fashion, veering back and forth from the day before the conflagration, to the night it occurs, and then forward one year. Three widows serve as a kind of Greek chorus, offering poetic but predictable observations about fear, waiting, the mourning process, recovery. Pacing around Schaeffer's unadorned, multi-level set of scaffolding, whirling ceiling fan, mill locker room and sad little kitchen, changing the linens on the big wooden bed that stands center stage, these drab women provide us with the emotional and linguistic filler that the bulk of the play does not.
The central characters in this undernourished saga are Marlene (Brilane Bowman), a hard-lovin', chain-smokin' powder keg of a woman; her good-natured stud of a millworker husband, Champ (Andrew C. Boothby); her burly brother Bo (James M. Zidar), a bitter, pill-popping Vietnam vet who is also the ultimate company man; and his frustrated, alcoholic wife, Sonny (Mary Stewart).
Ultra-compatible Marlene and Champ spend most of their time in bed, or bantering about how work might be skipped in favor of bed. By contrast, Sonny and Bo squabble and sulk; he uses his back injury and allegiance to the mill to avoid his marital obligations, and she suffers because of it. Through a succession of short, fragmented scenes, we piece together a minimal plot line: Bo came to work loaded up with painkillers the night of the fire; Champ and three other men perished. Proud, angry Marlene refused to take any settlement money offered her by the mill's owners, and is therefore regarded as a weirdo and an ingrate. Bo is interrogated by the government and almost cracks; is he responsible for the accident? Marlene persuades him to forget the company and be his own man. Sonny and Bo's relationship begins to heal. And no doubt Marlene will prosper again.
A lack of compelling action isn't all that is wrong with "Mill Fire." The characters talk to one another in either a blue-collar, profanity-filled vernacular or a jargon-laced mill code. Allusions to rain and heat -- overused metaphors indeed -- come up frequently. And though the script is mostly to blame for these hackneyed excesses, at times the fault lies squarely with director Dorothy Neumann and her actors.
Must the three widows simultaneously spill their husbands' ashes onto the bed ever so ceremoniously? Is it really necessary for Champ to appear naked in a surrealistic hospital scene? Sure, Bo is basically taciturn and repressed, but why does Zidar turn him into a deadly boring drone? And wouldn't it help if Stewart played Sonny's boozy scenes a trifle less stagily? (Her ever-wavering accent doesn't help much either.) Only Bowman succeeds in making her character credible; her alternately droopy and animated countenance, unfettered body language and stormy verbal outpourings tell us much about this lusty unlucky creature and her journey into and back out of despair.
Mill Fire, by Sally Nemeth. Directed by Dorothy Neumann. Set by Eric D. Schaeffer; lighting, John Burchett; costumes, Pamela McFarlane; sound, David Crandall. With Brilane Bowman, Todd Berger, Andrew C. Boothby, Marcia Ellian Gardner, Barbara Klein, Susan Gale Munro, Mary Stewart, Chuck Walen, James M. Zidar. Through Oct. 27 at the Gunston Arts Center.