Three men are hiding in a cave, in an unnamed African country, from warfare they can hear outside. They cower, they fight among themselves. They behave like a confused microcosm of the aggressive world they have fled, not unlike the men in Plato's metaphorical cave, who can perceive only the shadows of things, not the things of the world themselves.
Omo (Jonathan Dent) is a student in a sweater-vest, passive and timorous. Ssasi (Raidge), stifling a violent temper, claims he is just a poor thief, but he is bleeding from a head wound, so is he a rebel? Kadogo (Cedric Lilly) is a uniformed soldier, unsure of whether the other two pose a threat but angrily waving his gun around just in case.
The set design by Brown's Michael McGarty is simple and coldly effective: a background of crumpled chicken wire, a tall aluminum stepladder at stage right providing a higher level.
Omo is there as things open, on his knees praying, a rosary in his hand, swearing that he will become a good churchgoer if he gets out of this alive. He is frightened when the bloodied Ssasi bursts in. But that is nothing next to the terror they feel when Kadogo, with his AK-47 and his even more menacing temper, announces his presence by urinating on them from above.
Kadogo's trick is to produce humiliation and abject fear. It's not unlike the commanding presence that police learn to establish in a hostile confrontation. He comes across as a bully, ordering them around. Eventually we realize that he has reason to fear his unarmed captives. "Rebels are using students to finish off soldiers," he mentions.
We get to know them and their country's situation a little bit in the first act. The nickname Ssasi means "bullet" in Swahili, the language that Ssasi reveals he is using only out of necessity. He has escaped from bullets three times: once when his father took three of them to protect him as a boy, once when his mother fled with him on her back, and once when a girlfriend's father caught them in the act and shot at him fleeing, instead killing a pig. (Yes, there is occasional humor within all this menace.)
While sleepwalking, the government soldier fantasizes killing his general, the dictator of the country. As with his captives, his choices have been less about choosing sides than survival. When he hears on his precious radio that a cease-fire is about to be signed, he is distrustful, seeing only a lull in an endless cycle of violence.
But the overly lengthy Act I spins its wheels halfway through, as the soldier continues trying to frighten them well beyond the need of his situation. This would get tedious even if he were the sadist he pretends to be. But when the play finally gets out of its rut with Act II, Kadogo becomes far more interesting and complex as he drops the hostile pretense.
A Time of Fire is a different, more interesting play in its second half. We finally learn more about the trio, as we needed to earlier, to care enough about them. For example, we had known that Omo was expecting to meet his girlfriend in the cave — their trysting place — but now we learn about their relationship. As Omo describes its beginning: "Eyes got into trouble. Hands got into trouble. Then everything got into trouble." Similarly, the soldier finally becomes a real person when he softens and tells of falling in love: "My mouth kept pouring things I did not know were in me."