The Huntington’s Streamers ; SpeakEasy’s Edwin Drood
STREAMERS: The demoralizing effects of fear and aggression on the human spirit.
War is hell in STREAMERS — and few of the characters have even been to one. The four disparate young men at the heart of David Rabe’s 1976 New York Drama Critics Circle Award–winning play (presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at Boston University Theatre through December 9) haven’t hit the first circle of the Inferno — they’re in the vestibule, cooling their heels (if not their tempers) in a Virginia barracks circa 1965, apprehensively waiting to be shipped off to Vietnam. It’s like camp, except that the counselor figures are bullying and drunk and there are more horrifying things on the horizon than being short-sheeted as the variously scared and stoic twentysomethings slip in and out of uniform while trying on what it means to be a man.
Streamers, the third of an unintended Vietnam trilogy that includes The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, was well regarded in its time, but it does not regularly get the dust knocked off its Army boots. This is the first time I have seen it since it debuted at Long Wharf Theatre in a Mike Nichols–directed production that moved to Broadway. It may be that the racial, class, and sexual tensions roiling around, which eventually boil over into violence ameliorated by a heartbreakingly black-comic coda, are too discomforting. Certainly the play’s newly minted soldiers, perched on an early edge of American disillusion, seem naive. And we might prefer that the play’s climax be less melodramatic, its catalyst not a berserk black man. But Streamers is as brutally honest as it is brutal. Less anti-war on principle than in its depiction of the demoralizing effects of fear and aggression on the human spirit, it deserves to be seen. And the powerful Scott Ellis–helmed staging will not let you look away.
Thrown together in the harshly lit, clapboarded room of Neil Patel’s set design is a nervous cadre of recruits with little in common but their situation: witty gay child of Manhattan privilege Richie; corn-fed Wisconsin college grad Billy; affable middle-class African-American Roger; and Martin, who so loathes the Army that he’s slashed a wrist to get himself sent home. Once Martin and his compulsively trumpeted desperation are out of the way, we get inebriated bosom-buddy sergeants Rooney and Cokes, singing the metaphorical ditty about non-opening parachutes that gives the play its title, and a human bomb named Carlyle. Big, voluble, and black, Carlyle is dragging a destabilizing burden of resentment and terror as heavy as Robert Jordan’s rucksack of dynamite in For Whom the Bell Tolls — and just as certain to explode.
Rabe has said that he wrote Streamers in bursts, over the course of six or seven years. It was the first of his Vietnam plays that he undertook following his 1967 return from a two-year tour in a medical unit in that country. At first a three-way character sketch, it then acquired its geyser of violence. But, the dramatist told David Savran, author of the interview compilation In Their Own Words, it wasn’t a play yet. “There was just the killing, basically. There was no metaphor in it. There was no streamer in it, no sergeants.”
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