Volume of Smoke
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
March 23, 2007
Clay McLeod Chapman's new play, volume of smoke, chronicles the Great Richmond Theater Fire of 1811, an actual historical event in which 70 people perished (it was one of the great tragedies of its era). The fire, in turn, inspired the Second Great Awakening, a 30-year period of major religious revival in the United States. I'm sure there's a good play lurking somewhere in these events, but, unfortunately, volume of smoke is not it. Inspired and adapted from eyewitness accounts of the fire, Chapman's play gives voice to nearly three dozen victims and survivors, each one recalling his or her experience of the tragedy. These monologues (for that's basically what volume of smoke is: a multi-character monologue play) are gripping enough individually, but devoid of tension or conflict when collectively put together here.
Everyone gets a chance to tell his or her version of the story in volume of smoke: the stagehand who accidentally set the blaze (he forgot to blow out a candle on a raised chandelier); a blowhard actor who brings new meaning to the phrase, "He brought the house down!"; a pit musician who wants to hear how the flames play the burning musical instruments ("...it sounded as if the fire itself were playing the music now"); and various audience members and bystanders, some of whom survive, and others who don't. The abundance of viewpoints is dazzling as Chapman displays how many different experiences can be gleaned from the same communal event.
Chapman's writing also shows a great talent for imagery. Take, for instance, his description of a woman's sugar-hardened hair: "my curls crispened, even crackled, the slightest scent of sweetness spreading with the cinders of my scalp." Or, a reverend's description of someone on fire: "They dance. Every limb waves through the air, as if to rid themselves of the blaze—hoping to shake the flames away." volume of smoke is full of such evocative passages.
As compelling as these stories are, though, volume of smoke never rises above the level of journalistic reportage. The audience knows what's going to happen—the theatre is going to burn down; the characters will either live or die. Such foreknowledge diffuses any chance volume of smoke may have of generating conflict or suspense.
The theatre company Elsewhere has given volume of smoke a handsome production that is inventively directed by Isaac Butler. Tim McMath's set uses wooden floorboards, several old-ish looking chairs, and a couple of ladders to evoke 19th century Virginia, while Sabrina Braswell's dark, moody lighting (aided well by a ghost light) keeps things ominous. Sydney Maresca's beautiful period costumes are the icing on the cake. Butler keeps volume of smoke lively with a parade of direct-address tableaus that activate the script as much as possible. He is served well in this endeavor by his talented six-person cast: Katie Dietz, Abe Goldfarb, Daryl Lathon, Ronica Reddick, Brian Silliman, and Molly Wright Stuart all get their moments in the spotlight.
Ultimately, though, there's only so much that Chapman's collaborators can do with his play. volume of smoke keeps them, and its source material, hamstrung.