Adam Bock prefers to chronicle the unsung hero. The prolific gay playwright told PGN that when he sits down to write, he wants “to focus the story on someone who isn’t typically focused on.”
“I like to turn the camera on the place where it normally doesn’t go,” Bock said. “Writers usually write about extraordinary people, but I’m not very interested in that. I think, in our own lives, we are our extraordinary people. When we write about ‘extraordinary’ people, we’re keeping the politicians in power.”
Bock’s roster of extraordinarily ordinary tales include “A Life,” about the mundane existence of a middle-aged gay man, and “Before the Meeting,” which centers on an older woman in recovery from alcoholism. The Montreal-born, Manhattan-based playwright has won an OBIE Award and received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Local audiences can get to know Bock’s work when Philadelphia Theatre Company opens its season with his 2011 play “A Small Fire,” running Oct. 18-Nov. 10 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. It follows the playwright’s usual formula: Emily Bridges (played by Emmy and Tony Award-winner Bebe Neuwirth), a high-powered construction magnate, is gradually stripped of her senses by a mysterious illness. No longer able to manage activities of daily living on her own, she must learn to rely on the care of her husband John (Tony Award-nominee John Dossett) and adult daughter Jenny (local favorite Sarah Gliko).
Bock began writing “A Small Fire” after his father suffered a stroke.
“He went from being a really vital guy, riding his bike every day and being very athletic, to suddenly not being able to move,” Bock said. “I was really interested in the idea of what happens when your body betrays you.”
In the wake of his father’s illness, Bock saw his family’s dynamics change. That experience influenced the themes of the play, and the ways in which Emily becomes dependent on her loved ones.
“It’s interesting to see what happens to the people around you when the power shifts,” he said. “My dad was very powerful, and then my mom sort of had to take over everything.”
The drama also considers another topic that has been central to Bock’s writing career: how people react in times of extreme change.
“The moment when you have to change, and you know it, is a big one for me,” Bock said. “In my plays, there is almost always a moment where someone has to change in order to keep going, or a person has changed and must figure out what they’re going to do with it. I’m very interested in the moment when someone wakes up to a new reality.”
Bock is also keenly aware of gender perceptions in stories of illness, where women are often assigned the role of caregiver. That is one of the main reasons he decided to write the play from a female protagonist’s point of view.
“I know a ton of really strong women, so the fact that they are rarely seen on stage in their strength suggests it’s a narrative, rather than the truth,” he said. “My work often has strong women, because that’s usually how women are — they have to sustain and resist more than men.”
The play premiered at the prestigious Playwrights Horizons theater in New York, starring Tony Award-winner Michele Pawk as Emily. (Coincidentally, Pawk is married to Dossett, who appears in PTC’s production.) During the New York production, Bock was surprised to meet many female audience members who told him that they, like Emily, were in the construction field.
“Women kept coming up to me and saying, ‘I run a construction company,’” Bock said. “It’s an area where women are often in control. I had no idea. When I was writing, I thought, ‘Oh, well she could be the head of an art gallery.’ And then I thought, jeez, listen to how sexist I am.”
One of the women who saw that production was Paige Price, now the producing artistic director of PTC. The work stayed with her, and when she took the reins of the Philadelphia company, she put it on the shortlist of plays she wanted to produce.
When I spoke with Bock, he was in California, preparing for the premiere of his new play, “The Canadians,” at South Coast Repertory. After that staging gets off the ground, he plans to join the company in Philadelphia for rehearsals and preview performances.
“I’m really psyched,” Bock said. “There have been a few productions [since the New York premiere], but not tons. When I heard Paige was going to do it — and especially with Bebe — I was so stoked.”
Bock hopes that Philadelphia audiences will take away a greater recognition of the impact an illness can have on an entire family unit, and that they will consider how relationships evolve in their wake.
“Everybody gets shaken — not just the person who is sick,” he said. “Things shift, and if you’re used to things being one way, you may react in a way you don’t recognize. I had a difficult relationship with my father at times before his stroke, and I had to shift. It turned out to be a great experience because it allowed me to grow.”
“A Small Fire” runs from Oct. 18-Nov. 10 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street. For tickets and information, visit philadelphiatheatrecompany.org or call 215-985-0420.