“The Firemen” in its premiere production by Tommy Smith, is an unthinkable and at times disturbing love story between a middle school employee, Miss Keever played by Rebecca Gray, and one of the students, Ben played by Ian Bamberg. Set during the first Iraq war, Smith explores the confusion experienced by under-age victims of sexual assault as well as the moral ambiguities that arise when images of a war are brought into our homes and schools.
The pacing set by director Chris Fields is slow and deliberate, but the production doesn’t feel long. Fields allows the story to unfold, lingering where it needs to, but never rushing in other places to make up for lost time. This approach compliments Smith’s script beautifully. The dialogue is engaging and natural and the characters three-dimensional. They will probably remind you of someone that you know. There are several times that it becomes apparent what the conclusion of a scene will be, yet the interest in seeing the moment play out doesn’t wane. It is those moments that show the true craft of the script and staging.
However, it is in the subplots that the script goes awry. Smith sets the play during the first Iraq war, and the war or aspects of the war are brought up on numerous occasions. Despite this there didn’t seem to be any definitive statement or purpose for this subplot that could strengthen or inform the main story. It felt tacked on and under developed. The same can be said of the subplot between Ben and Miss Keever’s son Kyle. While babysitting, Ben essentially assaults Kyle. This clearly shows Ben’s confusion and inability to cope with what is going on, but the issues that are raised in the scene aren’t taken any further and Kyle is never seen again. Like the war references it feels like an easy vehicle to make a quick point that is never fully integrated into the main story.
The actors do a great job with this tough material. Gray, as Miss Keever is equal parts unassuming and meek around the adults and aggressive and quite frankly a bit disturbing in her seduction of Ben. Bamberg traverses the minefield of confused victim and willing participant magnificently. Michael McColl as Gary the substitute teacher, is the unlikely hero, if this story has a hero, and stalwart presence that keeps all of the other characters grounded. All in all this cast does an exemplary job.
Echo Theater Company, known for producing new works, has picked a good one this time around. It’s a tough subject matter and at times uncomfortable to watch, but that in and of itself speaks to the quality of the production.
*Coverage provided for the Culver City News