The dangerous calm before a battle — call it pre-traumatic stress syndrome — can be the real minefield, as David Rabe reminds us in his still-vital 1976 play “Streamers,” receiving a sharp and shattering revival at Boston’s Huntington Theater. Helmer Scott Ellis’ potent production makes a strong case for taking another look at this rarely polished gem — and for another potential Beantown transfer.
In a U.S. Army barracks circa 1965, four recruits, fresh from boot camp, await orders to be deployed to Vietnam. Tensions rise as the young men from various backgrounds grapple with their sense of helplessness facing a war that doesn’t make sense and a country adrift at a time that is incomprehensibly a-changin’.
This isn’t just a “Journey’s End” with better living conditions. These men also must come to terms with a modern set of circumstances. In this spare limbo, they search for — as well as escape from — what is real, what is known and what is sure in a destabilized world. It puts them all into an emotional free fall without a working parachute, echoing the play’s titular metaphor.
Roger (J.D. Williams) and Billy (Brad Fleischer) cling to the rules and roles of order. African-American Roger is streetwise but determined to do what’s expected of him. Wisconsin college graduate Billy tries to keep his moral compass straight but finds it increasingly challenging with cabinmate Richie (Hale Appleman), a flamboyant soldier from the privileged class who has no qualms about strutting his stuff.
Into this mix enters volatile Carlyle (Ato Essandoh), an African-American whose frustration at being sent to fight a senseless war is raw and dangerous. As they all play an unnerving waiting game (Neil Patel’s open, pale set places it in a cool, existential space), the men react with humor, denial, taunts and ultimately violence as issues of sexuality, race and class simmer and eventually boil over.
Questions pertaining to the characters’ sexuality propel much of the narrative. At a time before don’t-ask-don’t-tell, there was plenty of asking (and telling, too). Though the frank dialogue may not be as startling as it was when the show first preemed, the subject still has bite.
But it’s the things Rabe doesn’t say that haunt this work like a sad song. Beneath the men’s games of hide and seek, they all bond with the unspoken ache of loneliness, love and a feeling of otherness.
Essandoh is a force of nature as the riveting powder keg that is Carlyle, finding the complexities of a raging man who has had to hustle to survive in an animalistic world. Appleman begins with a flourish that may be too broad to be believed, but as the play progresses, his impulsive character deepens and ultimately becomes captivating. Fleischer has a harder time finding a clear path in the more troublesome role of righteous and enigmatic Billy. Williams keeps his character’s nose to the grindstone with a well-grounded perf as dutiful Roger.
Giving the quartet a terrifying and sad perspective from beyond the barracks are veteran sergeants played with machismo and tenderness by Larry Clarke as Cokes and John Sharian as Rooney. Clarke, especially, is poignant in the elegiac, deliberately meandering monologue at play’s end, a still-startling choice by the form-busting Rabe.
As he did with “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,” “Sticks and Bones” and “The Orphan,” the Vietnam vet playwright spoke with authenticity, urgency and a theatrically dramatic boldness that demanded attention — still powerfully evident in “Streamers” more than 30 years later.