Spontaneous Combustion is an autobiographical solo show by Tom Shillue. After the death of his mother in 2022, Shillue was at his parents’ home, going through boxes of his mother’s artwork and his father’s secret poetry and prose. His findings shed new light on events as he remembered them.
The set consists of a chair and two stacks of boxes: one of his father’s letters and papers and one of his mother’s artwork and jewelry. Shillue picks up items and relates stories about his parents: his mother, creative, frugal, and enterprising; his father, stern, mysterious, and frightening. The description of his father’s zeal for firefighting and young Tom’s “gasoline-scented pajamas” is very funny. His Massachusetts accent and earnest face as he and his brother silently pray for dad to stop at McDonalds on their weekend road trips brings the audience right into the back seat of the family car. Shillue’s reminiscences are funny, tender, and warm.
The press materials for the show talk about the truths Shillue uncovers about “the puzzling ‘spontaneous combustion’ of the Shillue family car in the 1970s, and the secret behind his father’s sudden transformation from ‘mean dad’ to ‘mellow dad’ in the fall of 1985”. These events are featured, but it’s the process of learning about new facets of their personalities by looking through his parents’ belongings that Shillue centers in the show.
The knitting together of his cherished memories with the details that these items speak of only after his parents are gone is a bittersweet process. That’s the true story depicted in the show. Shillue is of course regretful that he didn’t learn these things while his parents were still alive, but he ends on a note of gratitude and humor where the audience is expecting melancholy. It’s as surprising as the ending of his father’s poem.
"Tom Shillue: Spontaneous Combustion"
Written and performed by Tom Shillue
March 11, 2023
The Spring 2023 United Solo Festival
March 7th - March 26th, 2023
410 West 42nd (btw 9th and 10th Avenue)
STEPHANIE EAGAN is a professional writer based in NJ. A fan of every type of live performance imaginable, from taiko drumming to political performance art, she travels the tri-state area and beyond in search of music, art, theater, and excellent coffee.