at the Goodman Theatre Studio

The experience of Mill Fire begins the minute you step inside the Goodman’s smoke-filled studio theater. Images assault the senses, setting up the ritualistic, dreamlike evening that follows. Church music plays, and three black figures with long lacy veils sit immobile onstage as the audience enters. Stationary, doll-like, they are lit from above and below by thin beams of light. The dolls begin to sip coffee underneath their veils. One cries. As the smoke slowly clears, Mill Fire has already begun.

In spite of its movie title, Mill Fire has little to do with any conventional action or story line. It is about the spiritual journey toward mental health of a young woman named Marlene, after her adored husband Champ dies in a steel-mill fire. Although she is the primary focus of the story, she is surrounded by fellow sufferers of the same tragedy. A Greek chorus of three other widows speak as a unit, often in highly poetic language that keeps the ritual alive, describing their personal experiences of pain and healing. Marlene’s brother Bo, a mill foreman during the fire, plays out a subplot of guilt and responsibility with his alcoholic wife, Sunny. Their voices and stories surround Marlene as she works through her own private hell.

In more general terms, Mill Fire tells the story of a mill town experiencing a tragedy. The crisis moment, and therefore the frame of the play, takes place on the first anniversary of the fire. A memorial service is being held, and Marlene is reluctant to go. She has become persona non grata with the other widows, as she has refused to take the money that the mill offered the widows as compensation for their husbands’ deaths. During the course of the service, Marlene begins to remember back to the day of the fire, and the year that followed.

The play’s dreamlike structure, slipping in and out of three different time lines, helps to create an emotional sequence to the play, rather than a linear structure of events. Playwright Sally Nemeth has said, “When someone experiences a trauma, emotional logic seems more real than the way incidents actually occurred.”

This dreamlike structure is the source of both the play’s weakness and its strength. It creates a poetic sort of beauty that forces the mind to let go of customary modes of thought, and lets the images create their own truth. But because of its lack of continuity, the emotional bonding between character and audience doesn’t fully occur. We can’t sufficiently understand Marlene’s pain, and her subsequent breakthrough, because our experience of her is so fragmented. It is left to the audience to infer what Marlene is feeling and why she behaves the way she does.

This production more than makes up for the play’s shortcomings, however. It is exquisite in every detail. David Petrarca’s fluid direction makes the transitions between the disjointed scenes work. He pays attention to every detail, creating distinct environments within Linda Buchanan’s arresting, slightly abstract steel set. Robert Christen adds to the visual poetry with his striking lighting design, differentiating both place and time elements. He creates a stunning first impression of Marlene, lighting her bed through a ceiling fan, as the remnants of smoke drift across the stage. The work of sound designer Rob Milburn and costume designer Laura Cunningham is equally detailed, richly texturing the production in simple, evocative ways. The delicate, dark figures at the beginning of the show owe much of their intrigue to Cunningham, while Milburn’s sudden thunderclaps and pervading mill sounds help to clarify the progression of the piece.

The exceptionally talented acting ensemble all give finely tuned, captivating performances, with no one hogging the focus. Kelly Coffield heads the cast as the hard-edged Marlene. She runs the full emotional gamut, from wittiness and passion to anger and despair with the virtuosity of a concert pianist. She manages to find the emotional springboard for each scene, and follows the abstract logic of the play, finding just what she needs to lead her from one scene into the next linearly divergent one. B.J. Jones is well grounded as Marlene’s unhappy brother Bo. His changes in character are subtle but always clear. James Krag’s Champ is a charming, small-town good guy, while Kate Buddeke is frighteningly realistic as the alcoholic Sunny. The three widows add enormous depth to their fairly small roles, particularly Jacqueline Williams, who handles both the lyrical and earthy passages with equal skill.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.