The “Streamers” in the title of David Rabe’s unsettling 1976 play are the malfunctioning parachutes that trail, “like a tulip, only white,” behind doomed soldiers as they knife through the air toward their untimely end. Death comes with that same swift, startling randomness in Scott Ellis’ slow-burning revival, first staged last season by Boston’s Huntington Theater Company. The metaphor applies also to the destabilizing emotional void through which the play’s young U.S. Army recruits find themselves hurtling as they grapple with their fear and with the divisive issues of race, sexuality and class that can detonate at any time into violence.
Sexuality turns out to be the big one here, and its handling continues to resonate more than 30 years after the play was first seen — especially so in light of the past week’s events.
The presidential election results showed that America has turned a historic corner in race relations, proving that the quality of a man is more important than his skin color. But the news that gay marriage rights were shot down in three states, including California, illustrates that equality remains selective. And the angry faces of Prop. 8-supporting prayer demonstrators during the run-up to the election show that gay issues can still be a powder keg.
The ongoing relevance of this final play in Rabe’s Vietnam trilogy is matched by its striking theatricality. The punchy dialogue is simultaneously literary and naturalistic, shifting repeatedly between dynamic exchanges and beguiling monologues. The stifling environment of the Virginia Army barracks, where soldiers await deployment orders in 1965, places them in a hermetic limbo. The simmering cauldron of physical and emotional tension inevitably will boil over, yet it still retains the power to scald when that happens.
The dread of combat is articulated in the opening scene by a panicked recruit (Charlie Hewson) who has cut his wrist in order to escape the army. But confinement turns out to be a no less insidious and alienating threat than war to the remaining recruits.
Sharing the dorm are educated Midwesterner Billy (Brad Fleischer); streetwise, easygoing African-American Roger (J.D. Williams); and well-heeled city boy Richie (Hale Appleman), whose mocking flirtatiousness gets under Billy’s skin even as all three maintain the illusion that Richie may just be playing at being gay. The trio’s jokes and taunts are harmless enough until the intrusion of Carlyle (Ato Essandoh), an antsy black dude confused and resentful about being drawn into a war that has no connection to his world.
All four characters appear to be trying to figure out what kind of men they want to be, none more so than jive-talking, aggressively swaggering Carlyle. “That ain’t the real Carlyle was in here,” he says, referring to the scared, whimpering figure balled up on the floor the previous night. “This one here and now the real Carlyle.”
Rabe plants misleading seeds of hostility by introducing two bullying sergeants (John Sharian, Larry Clarke), fat-bellied regular Army men drunk on whisky and the smell of battle. But to anyone unfamiliar with the play (originally staged by Mike Nichols and then filmed by Robert Altman), the source and targets of the erupting violence may be unexpected; likewise the drama’s final voice of compassion and understanding.
Aided by a terrific ensemble that exhibits all the frictions and bonds of a unit in close quarters, Ellis brings a firm, even hand to the piece, keeping a judicious lid on performances that could have tipped over into melodrama.
Neil Patel’s raw, wood-walled set initially seems a counterintuitive choice, but this light, open room dictates that the sense of claustrophobia must come from the actors, not the space they inhabit. There’s a natural ebb and flow to the traffic in the dorm that mirrors the changeable rhythms of Rabe’s language and never reveals the playwright pulling strings to get characters on or off stage.
That same spontaneity extends to the cast. There’s particularly strong work from Williams as the most grounded character, and possibly the one whose humanity runs deepest; Essandoh as volatile Carlyle, lurching between inarticulate rage, suspicion, willful troublemaking and the odd, almost visionary ramblings of a madman; and Appleman, whose smartassy veneer doesn’t quite mask the heartbreaking sincerity of Richie’s genuine love for Billy.
The thinking on whether homosexuality is a matter of genetics, choice, experimentation or social conditioning was still coalescing in 1976 (in many minds, it still is), and that range is reflected in the characters’ attitudes toward Richie and in Billy’s troubled remembrances of past experiences. This makes the play as fascinating in its observations about men and sexuality as it is in examining the warped behavior and senseless infighting that result when individual freedom is restricted.