Forty years after winning a Tony for “Sticks & Bones,” the showpiece of his powerful Vietnam war trilogy, David Rabe has written another young man’s play. Set in a Midwestern city in 1962, “An Early History of Fire” dramatizes the age-old battle that sons feel obliged to pick with their fathers so they can leave home without feeling guilty. Scribes have been working this iconic theme since the age of Sophocles, so events are predictable. But in the mouths of his working-class characters, Rabe’s muscular language gives poignant voice to the last generation that came of age during the Kennedy years.
The primal contest between father Emile, known as Pop (Gordon Clapp), and son Danny (Theo Stockman) doesn’t look like an even match.
A university educated German who barely got out of the old country alive during the war, Pop has been doing menial work ever since he and his late, much-lamented wife emigrated to America. Although Danny views his father with embarrassment as a loud-mouthed loafer, the character that emerges from Clapp’s thoughtful and understanding perf is that of a cultured man, living out of his element in a rude world.
“A lot of years I worked, a lot of jobs,” he says in heavily accented English, explaining to his slow-witted friend Benji (Devin Ratray) why he quit the last one. “I want to sit a little is all.”
He gets no respect from son Danny, a college dropout who is desperate to escape the dead-end future that his friends Jake (the combustible one, smartly played by Dennis Staroselsky) and Terry (the sensitive one, played with nice restraint by Jonny Orsini) are blindly headed for. But Danny is too thick (and too thickly played by Stockman) to grasp the nature of his discontent. Dangerously prone to violence, he stews in his own juices and shifts his anger and resentment onto the old man.
Not understanding his desires any better than his frustrations, Danny projects his longings onto Karen (Claire van der Boom), a worldly rich girl from the nice part of town who turns Danny on to subversive books like “A Catcher in the Rye” and “On the Road,” and who finds his clumsy overtures exciting and sexy. In van der Boom’s poised perf, Karen holds her own on a disastrous date with a potential for violence.
When it does come, the definitive action that finally drives Danny out of the house takes place offstage, which is a dramatic problem. So are the circular arguments between father and son that never come to a dramatic point. That’s mainly because Danny is so convinced that his father is “fulla shit” that he consistently refuses to engage with him, each time passing up an opportunity for real drama — along with the chance to prove that he’s not as dumb as he acts.
There’s probably nothing to be done about this dim-witted hero and his blustery declarations that he “ain’t gonna rot in this one-horse town.” But Rabe’s overlong and repetitive script could have used a firmer editorial hand from helmer Jo Bonney, who does a better job of mining the text for the raw images and lyrical passages that make Rabe’s writing both strong and striking. Both strengths combine in a scene when everyone is stoned and Terry delivers a macabre but surprisingly lyrical aria to a frog being eaten alive by a snake — – a powerful image for what awaits anyone who manages to escape the small pond where these guys live.