By Dale King
Mill Fire is a horrific, haunting and deeply emotional play, a story of Birmingham, Ala., a steel town on the skids circa 1977; a massive, deadly fire and explosion in an apparently malfunctioning steel mill furnace that kills five workers; and the chaos the disaster inflicts on a community whose populace is already at the edge of upheaval.
The script, by contemporary playwright and television writer Sally Nemeth (Law & Order), provides the grisly grist for this unsettling tale told with excellent facility and deep pathos by students in the master of fine arts program at Florida Atlantic University.
The third performance of the school year to feature the current MFA class shows just how hard these student actors have worked – and how far they’ve progressed in mastering their craft.
The two-act production mixes realism with surrealism, even as the audience in the darkened theater winces at blaring sirens, flinches at explosions that literally shake the floor and recoils from the blazing light of a video showing a destructive fire.
All the action takes place on a divided-up stage, with a true-to-life, steel mill set in the upper right corner – a marvel crafted by scenic designer K. April Soroko.
Nemeth purposely muddies the time line by jumping backward and forward through a temporal vortex. It’s a bit confusing, particularly in Act I, until the audience eventually comprehends the author’s method.
Director Jean-Louis Baldet explains to viewers: “As the story unfolds, the timeline of events is presented out of its normal order. Moments will converge and diverge. Past and present are intermingled. Time flows as in a memory and you may perhaps feel as disconnected from reality as our characters.”
With a cast of only 10, Mill Fire spends considerable time developing every character’s personality, exposing their foibles and disappointments – which appear to be many.
While the town is overwrought about the fire, the play generally focuses on the five women who lost their husbands in the explosion. Four widows – Caroline Dopson, Indya Jackson, Martyna Reczka and Rachel Michelle Bryant – seem to put grief on the back burner. As emotionless, Stepford Wives-style automatons, they walk, talk, drink coffee from ceramic cups and spout sorrowful words about widowhood – more like a Greek chorus than a quartet of bereft spouses.
On the other hand, widow Marlene (Aubrey Elson) is totally and desperately absorbed in devising her own manner of grieving. We get a hint at her all-encompassing emotion when she and husband Champ (Christian Mouisset) are shown embracing romantically and exchanging loving looks as newlyweds do.
Later, when Champ is burned over 80 percent of his body in the suspicious mill fire and dies in the hospital, Marlene kicks into her shockingly unconventional grieving mode. She launches into a spell of personal despair that perplexes and angers the community, including her brother, Bo (Ryan Page), the mill foreman who pops “horse tranquilizer” pills like candy for a “back problem,” and his wife, Sunny (Lauren Folland), who is anything but sunny, guzzling booze like water.
Nemeth’s disconnected timeline gives the author time to show how the disaster ignites concerns that are still hot button topics today: Changes in factory labor regulations, environmental impacts, unions pressuring members and corporate officials seething to cover up faults.
The only character who seems to escape the gut-wrenching consequences of the mill fire is Jemison (Brian Cox), the worker who left the plant just before Champ arrived. He does show concern for Bo’s drug-taking and questions whether it messed with his judgment on the morning of the fire, but, otherwise, he remains largely out of the fray.
Baldet points out that angst permeates this play: “Cataclysmic events like this one, which destroy social order, often have that effect on us.” In the end, Mill Fire examines the many definitions of sorrow and the complexities of trying to move on.
Elson, Mouisset, Folland and Page give yeoman performances as they all struggle with the mourning process and internal family crises. Elson, who was outstanding as the rancorous student whose lies destroyed private school officials’ lives in the season opener, The Children’s Hour, is back – and just as emotionally charged – as the tormented widow. Her acting skills and grasp of the necessary emotional range overcome the grim nature of the Nemeth account.
Cox and Moxley offer worthy portrayals in a production that’s truly an ensemble effort.
Mill Fire continues tonight at 7 and Sunday at 2 in the Studio One Theater in the FAU campus in Boca Raton. To buy tickets, visit www.fauevents.com.