Some plays give viewers new insights into their lives; others force audiences to face uncomfortable truths they already understand but would just as soon ignore. “Distant Fires,” which is receiving a superb production at the Coast Playhouse, is a powerful example of the latter.
It is not exactly startling to learn that blacks and whites in America tend to view social issues in very different ways, or that there is a division within the black community between angry segregationists and hopeful assimilationists.
But watching Kevin Heelan’s well-written characters grapple with these simmering social schisms, they take on an in-your-face immediacy that causes beads of sweat to form on one’s neck.
This short, intense play is solidly constructed — which is more than one can say for the high-rise its construction-worker characters are building in Ocean City, Md. “Fires” covers part of a day on the unfinished 10th floor, where they pour concrete, sweep up and — more often — goof off.
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Heelan has done an impressive job of creating convincing, flesh-and-blood characters who also symbolize sociopolitical points of view. Foos (Samuel L. Jackson) is the angry black nihilist who drowns his anger in alcohol. Beauty (D.B. Sweeney) is a white man who can’t see, or acknowledge, the racism around him (which, in some ways, he unconsciously embodies).
(Mykelti Williamson), the one ambitious member of the crew. A black man who maintains a good relationship with the boss, he has every intention of getting the union brick-laying position that’s currently open.
But race riots have broken out in a poor section of town, and Thomas finds his chances of promotion going up in smoke along with the neighborhood.
Racism, personal responsibility, class-based resentments, the inability to see others’ points of view — these are the building blocks of the tragedy that is modern-day urban America, according to Heelan. He does a fine job of setting them out; director Clark Gregg and his superb cast do an even better job of making them connect with the audience.
It is a compliment to say no actor stands out in this excellent ensemble cast. The angry Foos is the showiest role, and Jackson thoroughly embodies the character.
Kevin Rigdon’s set and Melissa Merwin’s costumes are superb examples of stage realism. But where is the wind everybody keeps talking about?