When it first opened in 1987, “Fire” was hailed by Canadian critics for its then-daring attack on the hypocrisy of many Christian fundamentalists as well as for its skill at mixing rock ‘n’ roll with political rhetoric. It was produced widely and made a star out of Ted Dykstra, whose performance as Jerry Lee Lewis clone Cale Blackwell caught lightning in a bottle.
Two decades later, Dykstra is still playing Cale, and, although he’s now a bit old for the adolescent in act one, he brings new depth to the squalor in which he wallows during act two, and his piano-playing is better than ever.
The show itself, however, has not aged as well. The actual relationship between cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Lee Swaggart that Paul Ledoux and David Young wrapped their writing around is an interesting premise, but the co-authors push it much too far. The boys are brothers Cale and Hershel in the play, both smitten with the same woman and, of course, one goes to the devil while the other becomes a spokesman of the Lord.
By the time a melodramatic political campaign is added to the mix, with anti-abortion speeches, jeremiads against both sides in the Middle East war and other issues, “Fire” begins to resemble some of the more overwrought sequences in “Sweet Bird of Youth.” Truth be told, our religious and political leaders continue self-immolating, and any one of a dozen recent real-life events has more real dramatic juice than “Fire” now possesses.
However, under James McDonald’s workmanlike direction, the cast members feel as though they had all been handed the latest dispatches from CNN.
Dykstra walks wonderfully on the wild side, as the bad brother, playing the piano with his butt in his glory days, while his rendition of Ledoux’s haunting “Lost Out in Deep Water” shows how low he sinks.
Rick Roberts as evangelical brother Hershel is initially low-key but rises to impressive heights in act two after becoming a superstar TV evangelist. The energy he brings to his sermons is no less prodigious than the spirit Dykstra uses to sell “Great Balls of Fire.”
There’s also fine work from Richard McMillan as a righteous old-school preacher and John Wright as a slimy politician. Only Martin Julien goes a bit too far in his gallery of comic turns.
But the real starring perf comes from Shaw Festival vet Nicole Underhay as Molly, the woman torn between the two brothers. Not only is Underhay believable on every step of the journey, but her Molly clarifies the show’s essential struggle between flesh and spirit far more than the script ever does.
“Fire” can still blaze powerfully, but it’s the cast, not the material, that puts on the heat.