Monday, February 8, 2016

Review: 'Pretty Fire'

Cathy Simpson's performance elevates this one-person show into a celebration of faith and community.

Review: 'Pretty Fire'

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Cathy Simpson in 'Pretty Fire' ( photo credit:

By Jim Rutter


Charlayne Woodard began her autobiographical narrative Pretty Fire with a fight for life. Born several months premature, the doctors told her parents that she probably “wouldn’t last the night.” 

This beginning could serve as metaphor for Theatre Horizon’s production. Last Friday’s performance marked the grand opening of the company’s new space in Norristown—a bold venture to undertake during a struggling economy in a town trying to revitalize.

The new venue sparkled (I could still smell the fresh paint) and a high-ceilinged, expansive lobby greeted visitors and provided plenty of room to mingle. During the day, the ticket booth and reception desk roll away, letting the company use that space to host classes for its autism program.

Inside the theatre, comfortable chairs fan out in an arc from the stage. All 123 of them offer ample leg and elbow room. Sound travels cleanly from the stage; in Pretty Fire, Christopher Colucci’s design surrounded the audience in a world of chattering children, pouring rain and the crackling of burning wood.

Maura Roche built a wall of intersecting boards that hid the depth and breadth of the new venue’s expansive stage, and served as rural Georgia home and Albany farmhouse, and later a massive symbol that gives the play its title and terrified as a gruesome reminder of racism in David Todaro’s lighting.

All this room didn’t dwarf Cathy Simpson’s slender shape as she dramatized Woodard’s 1950’s era childhood. Instead, she commanded the stage, shimmying and singing, galloping across the boards like a five year old on her way to the five and dime.

Starting with her early struggle just to live, to learning ABC’s at the hands of a disciplinarian father (lessons that later earned her a spot in an accelerated program), to the summers spent outside Savannah at the home of her maternal grandparents, Woodard remained mostly unaware of that era’s attitudes toward African-Americans until one overt event. Back north in Albany, she experienced an equally affirming triumph in her church choir, which led to a life as a stage, TV and film actress. 

Despite the darker moments, James iJames direction amplifies Simpson’s ebullience, having her evoke each narrative fragment with the giddy imagination of a schoolgirl. Simpson’s joyous retelling elevated Woodard’s otherwise unremarkable tale into a celebration of how faith, family and community sustained and emboldened a once fragile young life.

This celebratory production became the fitting metaphor for Theatre Horizon’s grand opening, whose young artistic and resident directors have invested their youth in bringing the performing arts to this underserved region. Along the way, their small family has grown and prospered, moving from bars to high school gymnasiums, to a home of their own, where their outreach, programming and faith in the transformative power of the arts continues to energize and build a thriving community around them.


Pretty Fire. Presented through November 18 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown. Tickets: $25 to $31. Information: 610-283-2230 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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