The Substance of Fire | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Substance of Fire



The Substance of Fire, Organic Theater Company. In the decade since it premiered, Jon Robin Baitz's tense chronicle of the increasingly dirty machinations at a family-owned New York publishing house in the late 80s hasn't become any less urgent. Certainly all the problems he documents--most notably corporate culture's soullessness and corruption of power--remain clear and present dangers. But what really makes this script tick is the way Baitz brings home the very human desire to rewrite history. It's a compulsion that spans generations, beginning with world-weary publishing head Isaac Geldhart and continuing with his three prodigal children, none of whom has a high threshold for emotional pain.

The play draws much of its power from Baitz's choice to make the first act expository and save the most stunning realizations for the mournful coda, exposing all his protagonist's flaws in a process as horrifying and mesmerizing as a train wreck. As Isaac Geldhart, William J. Norris offers a beautifully realized performance; alternately tender and spiteful, he subtly connects the character's strengths and weaknesses. And this stewardship is critical: as Isaac buckles under the weight of history, he convinces us to share the burden, ensuring that Baitz's message won't be easily forgotten.

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