Farmer's Branch — In an old fire station in Farmer’s Branch, something’s heating up again. L.I.P. Service’s revival of David Rabe’s play Streamers at the Firehouse Theatre is like an eye-stinging bonfire on a blistering cold day. Just like the Vietnam war, it’s hard to find the right distance. Too far and you’re cold; too close and you get burned.
In his 1976 Tony-nominated play, Rabe employs a constant pedal note of paranoid homophobia to clothe his foray into military machismo and masochism. Director Seth Johnston transcends the limitations of casting and budget quickly, getting to playwright Rabe’s bigger thematic tension between the pain of isolation versus the risk of friendship. By keeping a brisk pace and focusing on the lyricism of the text, Johnston helps the audience see past the masculine smokescreens before the end of Act One. The audience returning for the second is sucked in for a searing surprise as the plot begins its hairpin turns.
Set designer David Hance has cobbled together army barracks complete with footlockers and camo netting. The bunks are wisely set on platforms so that the actors can be seen while they loll about waiting for the war. This is Virginia in 1965 and these boys are wondering if and when they’ll be going. Sound designer Danica Bergeron sews together effects and historic clips to set the mood in and out of scenes. Jason Leyva, the man behind L.I.P. Service, provides period uniforms for the recruits. The details begin to give a period feel. Though nothing can quite convey the tension of that time, some in the audience can still remember.
Roger (Kwame Lilly) and Billy (Kyle Lester) have a friendship that seems deeper than their shared, though short, military history. Though they come from differing places economically and racially, they’ve got an ineffable buddy vibe that makes their barracks mate jealous. You see, Ritchie (John F. Rutherford) makes no effort to hide that he’s gay. To the contrary, he teases and toys with Roger and Billy like a cat that can’t stand being ignored. While Roger takes it with his easy-going grace, Billy is clearly threatened.
While this trio marks their time, their superior officer, Sgt. Rooney (David Kersh) has been called up. Despite his alcoholic tremors, he’s destined for demolition. His friend from previous wars, Sgt. Cokes (Pat Watson) will be coming along, but not before the two tie one on as is traditional for those headed for the war. With rank, veteran status and inebriation on their side these two characters take over whenever they enter. Whatever was going on gives way instantly with consequences comedic and, sometimes, not.
Into the mix comes Carlyle (Henry Okigbo), a new recruit fresh from basic training who asks all the wrong questions as the uninitiated often do. His honest inquiries become dangerous when they challenge the status quo racially, economically and sexually. Playwright Rabe isn’t content to simply upset his play’s apple cart—he smashes it pieces. Amidst the rubble it isn’t clear if the playwright is pointing simply at the destructiveness of war or the ineptitude of male intimacy in general. What is clear is the hopeless totality of it.
The trio of Lester, Lilly and Rutherford work convincingly off each other. Lilly, as the cool peacemaker, Rodger, is the most charismatic, winning the audience’s allegiance easily. Lester really hits his stride in the second act as his Billy gets more and more agitated. Okigbo settles into a barky mood early, which deprives Carlyle of the crazy edge. There’s no doubt he’s menacing, though. The sergeants, played by Watson and Kersh blend the classic uncomfortable combination of funny and sad into their drunks.
Watson, however, deserves special recognition for a pages-long monologue that goes on and on in the wake of calamity. It’s an aria of awkwardness that would intimidate Steve Carell. This drunk coming to self knowledge while completely unaware of the catastrophe surrounding him is unforgettable in its cutting irony. You can’t look away even though it hurts.
Johnston’s focus on the larger themes makes this play ripe for L.I.P. Service’s revival. It’s simply the right recipe for theater: Take clear characters. Add great text. Mix with extraordinary circumstances. Heat evenly.
Caution: Contents may be hot.