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A CurtainUp Review
An Early History of Fire
By Elyse Sommer
Unfortunatel, while directed with respectful gentleness by Jo Bonney, Rabe's revisit to the Midwest where he grew up is a painfully slow moving coming of post high school age story, with underdeveloped characters. The time is 1962 and Rabe's aim seems to be to paint a picture of a young man still grappling with the circumstances and surroundings that shaped him as a new era is dawning. That main character, Danny (a very solid performance by the personable Theo Stockman), is the son of a loving but controlling German immigrant (Gordon Clapp) who is himself still grapples with what he has become— a currently unemployed low-level working man — and what he was.
Though this seems to be Danny's story, he is a lot less interesting than Karen (Claire van der Boom), a local girl enrolled in an Eastern college who already got a foot in the new era. Maybe she should have been the main character . . . but then, as Mr, Rabe;s dialogue for her makes clear, her story was already told by J. D. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey.
Karen's sense that Salinger was writing about her (she too had a troubled brother like Holden from Catcher in the Rye and Seymour in Franny and Zooey) gives her character some depth and poignancy,. It's she who introduce Danny to 17-year-old Holden Caulfield. While Danny is at least five years older than Holden, he and the fellows to whom he's still tied by bonds of loyalty that go back to grade school, act and sound like teenagers.
Danny's identification with Holden raises the possibility that might just be as smart and sensitive as the famous fictional preppie. That is if he stopped swilling beer with his friends and even considering joining their childish skirmishes with a bunch of young punks, worrying about Karen's family sneering at his too-large, borrowed suit, But no such luck.
I don't want to go into surprise spoiling chapter and verse about the too thin and too drawn out plot (not that there's too much to spoil). After a rather touching date interrupted by the fire that gives the play its title and a volatile party, Danny does pack up and leave. However, the events and motivation sending him away from his stifling environment indicate that he's still a giant leap away from clarifying his confusion about who he is or should be.
Mr. Rabe's daughter Lily, who was originally slated to play Karen but had to bow out because of scheduling conflicts) would have added some star power as well as her distinctive ethereal vulnerability. That said, Claire van der Boom is quite dynamic and her fellow cast members all do their best to bring life to their too derivative and sketchy characters.
Neil Patel's two-tiered house is furnished to reflect time and place though one can't help wondering why Danny is sleeping on a pullout sofa in the living room since his father is the only other occupant and surely, even the most modest house would have a second upstairs bedroom. All things considered, no one — not the hard working cast or the always sensitive Jo Bonney — can overcome the lack of fire in Mr. Rabe's new play.
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