Of a Family’s Home: “The Magic Fire”

Two generations; one woman. Gretta Beaty and Alice Hunter as Lise. Photo by Johanna Bobrow.

Presented by Theatre@First
Written by Lillian Garrett-Groag
Directed by Elizabeth Hunter

November 10 through 18, 2017
Unity Somerville, 6 William Street
Somerville, Massachusetts  02144
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Reviewed by Bishop C. Knight

It is important to note that Queen Geek, Kitty Drexel performed in this production. As per the New England Theatre Geek reviewing policy, Knight’s review is tailored to avoid nepotism.

(Davis Square, West Somerville, Massachusetts) In her Note from the Director, Elizabeth Hunter wrote that she “invited you into this room because [she wanted] you to feel like part of the family,” and Hunter succeeded in creating that audience experience.

The small stage in the center of the auditorium was surrounded on all its sides by patrons. We sat so close to actors that when the show first began I caught my breath. With an actress performing one foot in front of me, my instinct for flight activated.  At the very least, I would have scooched my chair back a centimeter or so, but that was impossible.  So for three hours, I was enmeshed with the Berg and Guarneri Family, and I became embroiled in backstories involving Nazism, Fascism, Perónist Argentina, and Russian classical music.  The more familiar I became with the characters, the more I relaxed into my chair, the more I leaned into their monologues, and the audience got quite intimate with this family.  We all became cozy in this home that Hunter created for us.

The Berg-Guarneri Family is brave.  Otto Berg (Jason Merrill) fled to Argentina after Anschluß, when Austria annexed with Nazi Germany in 1938.  And for most of her adult life, Maddalena “Nonna” Guarneri (Tasha Matthews) lived with PSTD because of her inability to recover from the trauma of Mussolini’s dictatorship. Although comical and endearing, Nonna yelling about Mussolini over dinner was an unfortunate tic she would suffer until her last dying day.  

Each actor in this ensemble was valiant in the portrayal of their character’s resilience against hardship. They looked audience members in the eyes as they shared borrowed memories about Austria and Italy. They did not flinch and they showed no shame to declare that they were survivors, ready to face a better future. I could tell this was a cast and crew who endeavored to inspire respect for the distressed immigrants they were representing, and that too was a successful aspect of the intended audience experience. These actors’ brave characterizations made me miss the childish view of adults as indomitable. By midway through Magic Fire, my empathy for the young Lise (Alice Hunter) had swollen with the wish that she never grow up and she always forgivingly overlook the eccentricities of her damaged relatives.

But politics aside, and turning attention to the family’s mundane dynamics, those patterns of relating that glue together many groups of kin, I found myself delighting in the Berg-Guarneri’s unabashed indulgence in highbrow culture.  There was a reference to the dancer Isadora Duncan that made my heart twirl.  Young Lise was learning Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, while her parents were off at the opera and, when the entire family was gathered together, there was a group song.  Nowadays in the 2010s, that’s called bourgeoisie.  Here in the USA, dance, opera, and community singing are increasingly condemned as “coastal elite” preoccupations.  And if that is so, then I am guilty as hell.  So perhaps what I reveled in the most was the unapologetic appreciation from this creative family for the highbrow arts. (I believe those cultural categories exist, although I wouldn’t bother to rank them.  They’re side by side.)

Permit a personal digression:  I was at the dentist.  I get nervous at the dentist, and so my technician has learned to have soothing music during our appointments.  A minuet happened to be playing as she drilled into my diseased gums, so I waved my hands for her to pause.  She did and asked, “Yes? Are you alright?”  I shook my head in the affirmative.  As blood dribbled out of the corner of my mouth, I gurgled that I had performed this minuet on my violin as a preteen.  I gazed into the technician’s eyes, expecting a moment of bonding, but she only sneered at me and slightly smirked before returning to my gums.  And that’s what I must live with during this Donald era.  Disregard for amazing art, and it is brutal for me.

The Magic Fire has closed at Theatre@First, but my suggestion is to see it elsewhere whenever possible.  The play premiered in 1997 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; then notably a decade later at the Shaw Theatre.  The cycle of production seems to be a revival ever ten years, so keep this drama on your radar.  

Like a rare total eclipse, Groag’s work is significant enough to put on your long-term calendar.  Groag’s play provides accurate descriptions of how adults translate private worries into communal exchanges. It reminds you of what politics were before the Internet. It confirms that your younger self is always an active agent within you – even now, as you read this.  It is a masterpiece, which was honoured as the tour de force that it is by the Theatre@First team which tended to every nuance, every accent, every sung note. Elizabeth Hunter pulled off a remarkable feat, recreating the home of a family I could never forget.

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