Saturday, February 09, 2019

“Fire Season” Smolders Over Opioid Crisis

Mike Dooley and Kathryn Van Meter in Fire Season (Truman Buffett)

Fire Season
Seattle Public Theater
Through February 17, 2019

Seattle Public Theater launched a new playwriting prize, The Emerald Prize, in 2016. It’s a pretty large prize of $10,000. It was a long process that involved getting submissions from selected professionals who were tasked with providing five plays, three of which had to be from women or LGBTQ-identified writers or people of color, or an intersection of these categories. Aurin Squire, an eclectic writer of plays, docudramas and documentaries, journalistic efforts and television episodics, won the prize.

Squire came to Seattle and workshopped the play and eventually the play was chosen for SPT’s season and is now on stage. Fire Season is set in a small rural Washington State community. 

The program tells us that Squire has a sister who is a physician working in a rural area who had her prescription pad stolen and used for the purchasing of a lot of sedatives. The play includes a woman doctor in just such a circumstance as it tells the story of the scourge of opioid addiction in this small town. Dedra D. Woods plays the doctor and she details the difficulties faced by a doctor of color in a small town that is mostly white. 
But the main character in this gritty drama is the mother of a dead boy. Elizabeth (Kathryn Van Meter) is working at Walmart and trying to cope with the death of her 12-year-old son whose death may have been an overdose and is never really explained. But the fall-out is very real. She can’t sleep in her apartment, where he died, and so sleeps in her car. Her 16-year-old son, Ricky (Pablo Lopez), is mostly left to his own devices and depends on his girlfriend, Jessamyn (Sofia Raquel Sanchez), who now is pressuring him to marry her because she’s pregnant.

A few other characters run through the play, like the Walmart manager (Martyn G. Krouse) who barely copes with Liz’s behaviors – as she desperately tries to get Walmart to raise their flag to half-staff for a day as a memorial gesture for a son who was very patriotic, a high school boyfriend of Liz’s (Mike Dooley), now Army vet who’s on house arrest for selling drugs and still selling them, the neighborhood drug-seller, and a homeless man (both played by Ray Gonzales), and the medical investigator (Alyson Scadron Branner). 

The story of the doctor rings true as she copes with the possibility of losing her medical license, but it’s very tangential to the heart of this production. Van Meter is riveting as the grieving, crass, not-very-motherly mother who is barely hanging on and doing the very best she can, which is not very well. Her Don Quixote quest to get the Walmart flag flown at half-staff doesn’t fit the subject matter very well, but Van Meter makes sure you understand that it’s important! (But wouldn’t it have been a whole lot easier to request that of her son’s middle school?)

The script does a great job of demonstrating the dead-end jobs in a small town, the fact that everybody knows a whole lot about everybody, and the realization that opioid addiction and death are a fact that small towns across America are dealing with more as a normal event than a catastrophic surprise. Liz, at one point, says that she can’t get out of her apartment lease because her manager said that five other youth have died in the same complex so her need to break her lease is not “special circumstances” – and that 20 high school seniors have died that year!

Director Kelly Kitchens wields a sure hand with this busy script (sometimes several conversations take place at one time) and gets a great performance from Van Meter. I’m not as sold as usual on the set by Julia Welch, which is all outdoors when there are significant indoor spaces suggested, but it’s gritty and dirty and rundown. The moody lighting by Thorn Michaels fits the play well.

The subject matter is very current and the dialogue crackles. Squire is clearly not a “new” writer! But more refinement, maybe fewer plot points, and sadly maybe removing the stand-in doctor for his sister might tighten the script. 

However, it’s exciting and interesting and a good evening of theater. The whole cast does a great job in every role. So, do check it out!

For more information, go to or call 206-524-1300.

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