at Profiles Theatre
David Rabe first made a name for himself writing about Vietnam in the early 70s. American theater needed someone who could write with conviction about Vietnam. And Rabe needed to write.
Vietnam hadn’t yet become a cliche. Later shows, such as Miss Saigon, would regularly play the Vietnam card to add an illusion of depth to shallow stories, and these days references to Vietnam have become a kind of theatrical shorthand. A Vietnam vet is now inevitably damaged and dangerous, a story about Vietnam always involves gratuitous violence and horrifying imagery–including Bruce Norris’s facile and empty Purple Heart, currently running at Steppenwolf.
When Rabe wrote about Vietnam it was still unexplored terrain. The closest mainstream cinema came to a critique of Vietnam then was Robert Altman’s coded attack in M*A*S*H, a film set during the Korean war. But Rabe had been drafted in 1965 after dropping out of graduate school at Villanova University, and he served a tour of duty in Vietnam during the years when LBJ was escalating the war. He became a grunt just as the conflict was turning into a full-scale catastrophe.
He was thoroughly steeped in the war, and it seeps into every corner of his work. Even when he tackles other topics–the behind-the-scenes world of strip clubs in In the Boom Boom Room or the drug-soaked corners of Hollywood in the late 70s and early 80s in Hurlyburly–Vietnam still haunts the edges. One can’t imagine these worlds existing without the Vietnam apocalypse and its concomitant sexual revolution, drug culture, and decay of basic civility.
Yet it diminishes Rabe to think of him only as a Vietnam writer. His plays retain their potency both as chronicles of an era and as lenses through which he could examine American society and, in the vocabulary of the conflict, communicate what he’d discovered.
Streamers, set in a stateside army base in 1965, is more about the sexual neuroses of its characters than about the war per se. It concerns a group of men confined in close quarters who’ve survived basic training but have yet to see action. As they wait for their assignments they have the leisure to think about their lives–where they’ve been and where they’re going.
Billy, one of the three men at the center of the play, has decided he’d rather be sent somewhere cold–say, a radar installation along the arctic circle–than somewhere with snakes, like Vietnam. But he has no control over where he’ll go, and given the troop buildup in Vietnam, it’s pretty clear that most of these guys will wind up there. They are, in the central metaphor of the play, like streamers–parachutists whose chutes haven’t opened, streaming through the air, aware that they’re totally fucked.
This alone would make their situation difficult. But these are also young, fit, well-rested guys near their sexual peak, many of whom don’t know themselves well enough to understand which way their sexual desires bend–which puts them in a pressure cooker of unstated homoerotic feelings.
Much of the plot is driven by their libidos and their panicky desire to affirm their heterosexuality in the face of conflicted feelings. All of them are careful to paste pictures of naked women in their lockers. Roger, the only black man in the barracks, goes a step further by posting a picture of Playboy’s first black playmate, Miss March 1965, Jennifer Jackson, the implicit message being: “You white guys have nothing to fear from me. I’ll never try to date your sister.” Richie, the most openly gay character, playfully mocks this ritual by posting an arty nude photo from a fashion magazine.
They also do all of the things guys do to prove their heterosexuality. They swagger, they curse, they go to a cathouse. Yet the repressed feelings keep erupting. The alcoholic sarge and a buddy who’s recently returned from Vietnam hang out together so much they might as well be married.
The beauty of Nick Minas’s production is how well he captures both the subtlety and power of Rabe’s play. When Rabe wants his characters to dance around their sexuality–teasing one another, then denying that anything’s happening–Minas’s ensemble is understated. Dan Waller plays the sexually conflicted Billy with a rare grace. He uses his Steve McQueen good looks to make his character seem very straight, but then gives us hints, in quick glances and pregnant pauses, that his homophobia may be a mask. Ed Krystosek’s performance as the slightly fey Richie is a study in restraint, and Les Jennings as Richie’s friend and roommate Roger is remarkable at being so blinded by denial that he’s the last to discover that Richie isn’t kidding about preferring men to women.
This production explores the sexual currents in Rabe’s play without either caricaturing them or making them so obvious they obscure the other elements. The sexual tension is always palpable–as is the potential for violence. And when violence inevitably occurs, Minas and his cast aren’t afraid to throw themselves into it with a primal power. Yet Minas deserves special praise for the way he choreographs these violent moments without glorifying them.
I admire this production most for not falling into the Vietnam trap. Yes, it’s set in 1965. Yes, it contains enough references to Vietnam to make you feel for guys about to be shipped off to hell. And yes, Minas does a great job of making sure the set, props, and costumes are historically accurate, right down to vintage issues of Playboy. But he seems to understand that this descent into particulars is, to paraphrase Aristotle, the route to universal truths–which is what makes the play resonate 30 years after it was written.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Maria Kolek.