But as good a writer as Chapman is, he doesn't provide conclusive evidence with "Smoke" that he's a great dramatist By fracturing his story into numerous disconnected scenes, he doesn't develop much dramatic momentum. Thematically, he introduces several ideas the tension between religion and theater, the timelessness of tragedy but in the play's short 80 minutes, he only skims the surface of them.
In the production's program notes, co-director (along with Chapman) Isaac Butler calls the play "a mosaic of tragedy," and the metaphor could not be more appropriate. But "Smoke" is like a mosaic where the individual tiles are exquisitely beautiful, but the total effect is somewhat indistinct.
What does come through clearly is the talent of Butler's actors, all of whom play numerous roles. Anchoring the crew is Justin Dray, who delightfully chews the scenery as the pompous bad actor who first alerts the Richmond Theatre crowd to the fire. Stephen Ryan comes across a little whiny but also achingly real as the patron who won't let his family leave the best seats in the house, even as the rest of the crowd starts to panic. In a heartbreaking scene, both Jennifer Meharg and Stephanie Kelley expertly portray young children trampled by the escaping crowd.
But Foster Solomon provides the most searing moments of the play. He plays a son of slaves who is haunted by the ghost of an aunt who died on the ship over from Africa. In a scene powerfully evocative of a more recent tragedy 9/11 he catches women as they jump from the windows of the theater's upper-floor windows, saving lives while exorcising his own demons.
The action plays out on a stage somewhat artlessly cluttered with theater detritus (six chairs and a couple of ladders would have sufficed). Costume designer Elizabeth Cusack does a good job of outfitting the actors in period-appropriate garb. And in a play where lighting takes on more importance than ever, lighting designer Sabrina Braswell provides understated, but effective, variations in illumination.
There are images from this play that have already etched themselves into my memory the vision of a stage as a ship with billowing backdrops as its sails, birds escaping through the burning theater's roof with their wings on fire. Chapman serves up many tasty morsels like these in "Volume of Smoke," providing plenty to savor in the individual courses, even if the whole meal leaves you wanting more. S
"Volume of Smoke" runs at the Firehouse Theatre Project, 1609 W. Broad St., through March 19. Tickets are $20. 355-2001.
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