Theater has evolved over millennia into an almost limitlessly varied practice, ranging from the most commercial entertainment to the most outré performance art. Yet among these, the use of theater as chronicle — a way for communities to reflect on and give dignity to the experiences of those affected by cataclysmic events — remains uniquely potent. With Through the Fire, the new theatrical documentary at Santa Barbara City College’s Jurkowitz Theatre, director Katie Laris and coauthors Philip Laris and Alice Scharper have done a remarkable and resonant job of putting some of the most difficult moments in the recent history of Santa Barbara into historical and human perspective.
Aided by a fine cast of 13 actors and some wonderfully simple and effective stage, lighting, and sound design, the creative team behind Through the Fire puts the excitement and tension of those terrible days and nights in the service of something more lasting and fulfilling, an understanding of the extent to which people are challenged, changed, and ultimately revealed by encounters with disaster.
The structure of the piece is deceptively simple; with the exception of one couple who are given the chance to tell their story together, each actor appears alone with his or her character’s words and story. Their voices weave in and out of one another, linked only by association, as when one story halts on the word “shaking,” only to have another pick it up and run in another direction. In the opening moments, the emphasis is on the individual backstories — how it was that each character wound up living where he or she did in Santa Barbara. From there, the awful spectacle of their initial realizations and eventual forced exodus unfold.
Brian Harwell’s character was flying a kite in high winds when it got loose and crossed some power lines, starting the Sycamore Canyon Fire. David Brainard’s doctor character worries endlessly over what to take with him, only to nearly lose his life on account of some old photographs and notebooks. Jenna Scanlon plays an animal rescue worker who walks a lost horse out through blinding smoke and flames. And Leslie Gangl-Howe makes an extraordinarily powerful statement out of a woman’s story of the different ways that she and her then-husband responded to the blaze.
The quiet intensity of the piece gains momentum continuously until the end, and it goes out on a powerful mixed note of gratitude for what has been saved and mourning over what’s been lost. For anyone who enjoys theater or who has personal memories of any of these events, Through the Fire is an experience not to be missed.