An Early History of Fire
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
April 28, 2012
We may have lost our innocence at the point when we stopped being literal and began to explain our world in abstract terms, but were we ever really that innocent in the first place? We can look back at the early days of TV and think how cute and innocent Beaver Cleaver was, but was that just a façade? Was it what the Japanese call tatemae which refers to behaviors and opinions that we display in public because that is what is expected of us? David Rabe explores this transformation from innocence to the corruption of abstractions in his curious and provocative new play An Early History of Fire, now being given its world premiere by The New Group.
Set in a small town in the Midwest in 1962, An Early History of Fire has at its center an honest young man named Danny who is in his early 20s and dreams of getting out of the prison that has become his small town life. His best friends, Jake and Terry, have perpetually been in his life and they don’t seem to be going anywhere. Danny’s immigrant father, named simply Pop, lives in the past and never lets Danny forget that he survived the Nazis. Into Danny’s life comes a rich young woman named Karen, who has spent a year back east at college learning to think and act progressively. Karen and Danny are from opposite ends of the socio-economic scale and their coming together irks his friends, especially Jake, who would like to keep Danny right where he is. Karen, who is enjoying her slumming with this simple-minded, salt-of-the-earth type, has other plans for Danny. She is going to drag him into a world of pot smoking and sex that she is just discovering for herself. Which way will Danny go? Will he stay with his buddies or chase the girl? Well, what do you think he does?
In many ways the whole play has to do with living in the past versus moving into the unknown and increasingly obscure future. From the father’s remembering his life back in the old country to Jack and Terry reliving the glory days when they were kids setting fire to a hill, Rabe makes a point of creating the feeling that the past is only going to hold us back while at the same time he makes the future murky and complicated with long speeches that overflow with pop psychology and progressive social mores. The contrast in the dialogue between Karen with her twentysomething crush on the hip, cool world she’s being exposed to and that of Terry and Jake who want nothing more than to live out their lives unchanged and unchallenged is quite stark. It’s as if they are speaking different languages. Rabe’s plot is rather predictable but that doesn’t take away from the playing out of the central question as to whether we were ever really that innocent or was our corruption always there just waiting for the time when the façade could be dropped.
Theo Stockman leads the cast as the respectable and clean-cut Danny. Stockman is solid in this role though perhaps a little robotic. Claire van der Boom is wonderful as Karen. She brings an even mix of pretentiousness and naiveté to the role. Together Jonny Orsini and Dennis Staroselsky are both excellent as Terry and Jake respectively. Their honest portrayals of these characters certainly help to create sympathy for the simple life. Erin Darke does a great job with Shirley, who is Terry’s high school sweetheart and has recently started turning tricks. As with other plays Rabe saves some of the best roles for minor characters (who are often prostitutes) and Darke really chews this role up. Gordon Clapp is very strong as Pop and he’s backed up well by Devin Ratray who plays his buddy Benji.
Jo Bonney’s direction is even-handed and well blocked though somewhat stand-offish in that she seems to leave the actors to their craft. Still Bonney’s vision of a simple life clashing with a new world of ideas is clear and well presented. The production is supported by a nice looking and very utilitarian set design courtesy of Neil Patel and some good costumes that are evocative of the early '60s created by Theresa Squire.
An Early History of Fire is an interesting exploration into the end of innocence. The New Group has another sound production of a David Rabe play that should not be missed.