By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER
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 theatrehorizon.org