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MadLab’s Intriguing Science Fiction Drama The Wave that Set the Fire

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford MadLab’s Intriguing Science Fiction Drama The Wave that Set the FireColleen Dunne as Petra, l-r, with Stephen Woosley as Joyce, Susie McGarry as Barb and Dustin Schwab as Linden in MadLab Theatre's production of The Wave That Set The Fire by Ellen K. Graham Photo by Michelle Hanson.
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MadLab’s season focusing on science fiction as commentary continues with the opening of their regional premiere of Ellen K. Graham’s The Wave that Set the Fire, directed by Kyle Jepson.

In near-future Colorado – it’s implied the economic crash was five years ago – a government agent (Petra) shows up at a dilapidated house looking for the suspect in a teenage girl’s death, the 17-year-old Linden (Dustin Schwab). Before she meets him, she interviews his parents: his disappointed and frustrated mother, Barb (Susie McGarry), and his father, Clement (Maxwell Muir), trying to put a gregarious, easygoing front over a surging river of anger. Semi-lawyer Joyce (Stephen Woosley) and aunt Barb (Mary Sink) complicate the investigation as, we’re led to believe, they’ve thrown wrenches in the family’s life.

The greatest pleasure in The Wave that Set the Fire is the freshness of Graham’s voice, the dialogue doesn’t sound like anyone else working. There are clunky moments, too-complicated syntax, it’s an early work from Graham but it‘s refreshing to hear language that’s not tied up in a neat little box and I’d love more work from her. Graham also does not flinch in the face of the questions at the dark heart of her story – not just how do you remain a decent human being in the face of unrelenting darkness, but why do you care? How do you keep caring? And the writer trusts her director, her actors, and her audience enough to not give a pat, neat answer to all those questions.

The Wave That Set The Fire

Stephen Woosley as Joyce, l-r, with Dustin Schwab as Linden, Mary Sink as Bay, and Colleen Dunne as Petra in MadLab Theatre’s production of The Wave That Set The Fire by Ellen K. Graham Photo by Michelle Hanson.

Kate Hawthorne’s set does a great job of implying a situation where everyone’s just making do. The acting has issues with being all over the place. Colleen Dunne’s take fascinated me: a character we’ve seen a million times but never gripped by this encroaching sadness and ennui, but there were times it seemed oddly tentative. McGarry and Muir did a nice job peeling back layers of the suffering parents but sometimes there wasn’t enough connective tissue to back up those complications, making them seem too cartoonish at key moments.

Woosley’s plains-preacher-turned-hustler take on the one “smart guy” from the family, with all his frustrations and secrets, is a delight. Dustin Schwab is electric, a performance that made me sit further up in my chair and made my eyes go wide to see what he would do next.

The Wave that Set the Fire stumbles with direction. I respect letting the audience get to know the world and characters in an unrushed way but this kind of abstract play where things don’t always make literal sense needs far more propulsion early. The first third feels more confusing and staid than it should.

For a play that’s so talky in a confined space, it defaults to stillness too often. I wondered why all the characters on stage stopped to arrange themselves in a tableau. A more confident, unafraid-to-be-messier hand might have helped bring the energy up to the level of the writing. However, Kyle Jepson excels in the gripping final scenes and bringing out the humanity of these often-outlandish characters.

This cerebral, melancholy drama points in an interesting direction for MadLab and while the play is a mixed bag, I’d like to see more of this kind of work. The Wave that Set the Fire runs through October 20 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

For tickets and more info, visit madlab.net.

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