A great production of an excellent play can set you on fire with passion for the art form. You walk out of the theater knowing that something authentic has been uncovered about the very nature of human experience. And you realize that this particular revelation could only come via the theater. The Boulder Repertory Company's production of Jon Robin Baitz's The Substance of Fire, directed by and starring Frank Georgianna, offers just such an experience.
Georgianna plays Isaac Geldhart, an idealistic publisher with a small company dedicated to meritorious work. He is also a Holocaust survivor and the patriarch of a dysfunctional family--his wife is dead and their three siblings, Aaron, Sarah and Martin, have grown up duly miserable. Isaac has brought Aaron, the oldest son, into the family business, and as the play opens, Aaron, Sarah and Martin conspire to overthrow the old man if he refuses to publish a steamy novel calculated to make money. They are majority stockholders, the business is in trouble and they want to protect their assets. But there are more powerful forces at work here than simple economics.
The kids' coup, when it comes, is partly the rigid old man's fault; he might have kept his company and his principles if he hadn't been such a jackass to his offspring. He refers to Sarah, an actress, as a clown for children's birthday parties, describes the Harvard-educated Aaron as a bookkeeper and calls Martin, a Rhodes Scholar and a professor of landscape architecture, a gardener. Needing his approval and never getting it, the children at last rebel against not just their father but his virtues as well. They take his company, and therefore his very reason for living, plunging him into years of depression and sentencing themselves to the anguish of guilt.
Though the plot may seem familiar--sort of a "King Lear lite"--there's nothing simplistic about Baitz's vision of art and life. An unlikely twist at the end of the play feels real because the writing is so good, but also because Baitz's plot rejects the grandeur of tragedy in favor of something more modest and far more pertinent to the late twentieth century: reconciliation. The caustic old jerk sees through his own "failures of the spirit" and realizes the need to make peace with his children.
The Substance of Fire concerns the age-old struggle between the integrity of excellence and the convenience of mediocrity. Art versus commerce. Ethics versus expediency. Father versus son. It is most importantly about the need to stand for something meaningful in a disintegrating society and to affirm that all actions--even adding the sleazy inanity of a bad book to the culture--have potentially serious consequences. Balanced against these high ideals is a recognition of the need for compassion and compromise--the demands of life in the here and now.
The supporting cast proves more than equal to the mate-rial. David C. Riley as the exasperated Aaron is particularly bright. Antonia Freeland as Sarah makes a pathetic, sweet dim bulb. Todd Wollard's Martin is as sensitive an angry young man as you'd hope to find. And Suzanne Adams creates a very natural, good-hearted social worker who comes to evaluate Isaac's state of mind.
But it is Georgianna's inspired performance, so moving and so maddening, that makes the show. He draws us with him into the dim past and the immediate future, here with a gesture, there with a tone of voice. He can by some subtle command of the art draw the viewer's eye so that one has no choice but to gaze into his face. He conveys intelligence, grace, dignity and meanness all at once. And in the end, a revelation of the spirit.
The Substance of Fire, through August 28 at the Boulder Public Library auditorium, 1000 Canyon, Boulder, 449-7258.