It’s the early ‘sixties and the counterculture movement has not quite caught up to the small Midwestern town that provides the setting for David Rabe’s An Early History of Fire. In fact, they are still not ready to let go of the ‘fifties: Jake (Dennis Staroselsky) insists that Elvis will live forever while Terry (Jonny Orsini), unable to imagine the future, tells his friends, “I ain’t never going to be forty.” Terry, in particular, is hung up on the past, and begins the play by reminding Danny (Theo Stockman) of the time when they would set hill fires as kids—once, Danny was trapped out on Indian Bluff and thought he was going to burn alive. But the fires were always put out. Even Danny’s father, Pop (Gordon Clapp), doesn’t seem to know what decade he’s living in—he spends his time reminiscing about his old chess buddies in Germany or retelling the story of his escape from the Nazis.
But this fantasy of distilled childhood is shattered when 1962 walks through the door in the form of Danny’s new “rich bitch” girlfriend Karen (Claire van der Boom), an ultra-privileged, over-educated college girl with an unhealthy obsession with J.D. Salinger. (Is there any other kind?) Introducing marijuana to the group and LSD to Danny, she forces them to confront their loss, which is accented by another generation of kids setting fire to and this time destroying Indian Bluff. An Early History of Fire feels and sounds like a memory play—if it is not autobiographical it might as well be—and so, of course, Danny decides that he wants to be a writer and, like all those who have come before him, must leave his home in order to write about it.
There is nothing especially wrong with An Early History of Fire, but there certainly isn’t anything right. The territory is so familiar, the metaphorical scope so old, we wonder why the play even exists. Within a few minutes, Terry suggests that he and Danny go back to Indian bluff, to “see the old places … see what’s left,” before realizing, “We couldn’t, right?” In another work, we might not forgive this kind of heinous triteness, but there is admittedly something warm about An Early History of Fire, like the crooning sound of Elvis’ voice.
Perhaps it is the winning genuineness of Mr. Orsini and Mr. Staroselsky, who sell the play’s tone even more than the writing. Mr. Orsini, in particular, brings a wonderful, innocent honesty to his role. In one scene, he interrupts making out with his old flame to ramble on about a frog he watched getting eaten by a snake: “He wanted me to save him, but I was scared.” And Mr. Staroselsky may have the best moment of the play, when he forces the group to be quiet and listen to “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” Normally the macho, motormouthed bullshiter of the group, he stands, lightly swaying, eyes wide open with a heartbreaking melancholy.
Mr. Stockman, however, never quite seems right as Danny. He always has a sneer on his face, an air of unearned superiority to his surroundings that make his plight thoroughly unsympathetic. Especially since Danny’s writing is just awful. He renders his breakup with Karen as, “I stood looking at her house—they wouldn’t let me in—and all of sudden, I felt like she was never real—none of it—the whole night a phantasm.” A more interesting play might have deal with his subsequent failure.
Ultimately, An Early History of Fire may very well be a terrible play, but it doesn’t deserve any vitriol. It is pointless, and it should not be condemned—simply forgotten.