Late in the evening, Tim Collins is playing Tim Collins, a young actor interviewing people for material to fuel a one-man show he's writing on the subject of the 9/11 attacks, terrorism, the economy, the last two presidential elections and the whole Republicans vs. Democrats/us vs. them motif that has defined the past seven years. "How do you ever know when someone tells you something that's true?" Collins the interviewer asks the audience after a recounting a particularly difficult session. If this question is not the be-all, end-all of A Fire as Bright as Heaven, it is at least the ghost that haunts the darker corners of the play: You know it's true when you wince, or smile sadly, or nod in the shadows of the theater and have nothing to say in response because it's already been said well enough.
This is the strength of the show, that Collins — writer, director and sole performer — does not attempt to whittle his mass of research down to a pointed answer to the big question, "What do the last seven years mean?" Everybody knows what it means — what it means to them in their world. So Collins takes us into these worlds for brief visits, offering glimpses of how a pedantic American professor in England views the 9/11 attacks on September 12, 2001 (we deserved it), and how a woman buying a puzzle in a toy store feels about the invasion of Iraq (there must be Iraqi mothers as terrified for their children as she is for her own), and how an NRA representative in St. Louis is dealing with the disintegration of society (he's well-armed and prepared for...something).
Collins assumes these roles with a minimum of props: a baseball cap, a pair of glasses, a sweatshirt. Much of each character is created through posture and movement, but it is through speech that each is fully defined. There are little gems throughout the play, such as when the stereotypical Masshole gassing up his massive SUV jokes about John Kerry that "He's like an android, a Frankenstein and the king of ketchup," or the happy Republican who tells Collins the liberal, "We're the same, but I'm happy about our country's hard choices, and you're miserable. Oh, and I make a lot more money."
What keeps the play from being merely a snapshot of other people's lives is that Collins is eager to find the moments where those lives crack. The Masshole busts a few more jokes, then works himself into a lather about the election and ends with "John Kerry coulda done it —," and a sour look crosses his face as he recalls how close it was. The happy Republican reduces the partisan argument to its base elements — "You are outraged; I am accepting; I am happy" — but by the time he finishes shouting, he's staring at his coffee cup with anything but joy.
Collins doesn't spare himself, either: Tim Collins the interviewer addresses the audience with his doubts and fears and asks what he can do to feel better. "I can write a play about it, but then the only people who come are people who agree with me."
The cumulative effect of visiting these lives is the realization that we're all afraid of what's coming, we all have doubts about what has passed. A little more conversation with each other, a more honest attempt to listen to the other person and maybe we'd be less antagonistic. Or at least we'd be aware that the other, however you define it, is also fearful and doubtful. And then we could wince, and smile and nod.
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