An Early History of Fire
"An Early History of Fire" follows the anti-hero Danny (played by Theo Stockman) who, as we seen have so many times before, desperately seeks to escape his proverbial tiny life in a pleasant town too small to contain him.
With references to "Catcher in the Rye," Danny feels like its title character, in essence, a boy with dreams of betterment. Danny, although longing for freedom, also feels responsible for his friends stuck in their "little lives," and forces himself to remain loyal to them in spite of his dreams and sexual impulses.
From the opening act, Danny's parental relationships are explored with a great contemporary respect. Although set in the early '60s pre-hippie madness, it has a timeless ability to uncover the natural tension between the early 20's post-teenager searching for answers and himself, and the older generation of workers -- in particular the European work horse that left what was known to come to America.
Danny's father (played gently by Gordon Clapp) has left his job and spends most of his hours at their almost adequate home unsure of his own future, but resolved to find some solace in horseplay with his friends at the local bars. With the passing of his wife his main concentration has become his son -- and what he will do with his life.
Danny's incessant demands to his father to better his life by finding a job and "making something of himself" allude to the lost youth of the early '60s before the so-called sexual revolution, and before The Beatles, that he is so desperately feeling himself. References to Elvis Presley throughout the play are fitting as they represent exactly that: the freedom to shake one's hips, the freedom to express oneself, and the ultimate freedom that allows one to find himself.
Danny questions life's ability to take him along for the ride and wants to know how he is not in control of what is happening to this seemingly disastrous life he is in. As Danny cannot wear his own suit, (left at the cleaners by his father who forgets to collect it) he wears a borrowed, oversized suit to his date with a girl he is rather nervous about pursuing. This ill-fitting suit becomes the symbol of the out-of-control life he is so dramatically battling with.
His frustration with his father for forgetting the suit is taken out with violent notes on a piano that quietly lurks in the corner of the living room. The humble stand-up piano becomes the symbol of the maternal presence that has left their home; Danny reveals his inability to even think of his mother's death with an ushering of disarray.
This shamble in Danny and the lack of female attention comes to the fore as Karen (Claire van der Boom) returns to the so-called "village" after receiving some education "out East" and meets up with him on this date at her well-to-do parents' home.
With the class system of haves and have nots so pertinent in the '60s, Karen expectedly comes from "up the hill," and Danny is starry-eyed with her ability to appear free and airy that is afforded to her by daddy's fortune. This of course lets Danny see her as the perfect representation of carefree life, and he continues to court her from a naïve, yet sweet, place.
The fresh relationship between Danny and Karen progresses with such speed that they barely get to know each other but they represent newness and hope so strongly to each other that they cannot resist words like love and all that is physical. Karen inspires Danny to read and he becomes engrossed in "Catcher in the Rye," and more notably the wild abandon of Kerouac's "On The Road." Some marijuana is smoked and more existential questions arise with Karen trying to find meaning from her sheltered life as Danny finds answers to some of his own doubts.
Both Stockman and Van der Boom, who won't allow their characters to break open and smother the audience, eloquently act the parts. The inability to completely go up in flames is so poignant as the restraint of the times' pre-revolutionary spirit comes to surface by the actors.
The overall play is scripted with such precision that it could have condensed the themes slightly. In the final parts of the second half the dealings of every possible topic including all things sexual, pedigree, loyalty, friendship, and more become a blaze.
The actual fire that happens during the evening creates an astute urgency so often associated with running away from home and growing up and so gives all the characters the hostility of an inferno that seemingly rages inside us all.
David Rabe creates these characters for us to loathe and relate to, and smartly achieves the revving up, with no climax, of the era with his script.
"An Early History of Fire" runs through May 26 at The Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street. For info or tickets visit http://www.thenewgroup.org/season3.htm