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David Rabe Opens Up How He Changed the Soul of "An Early History of Fire"

By RANDY GENER

The play swerved. It veered into a different path. Once the New Group greenlit David Rabe's script for production, seven years of slow, dedicated work went out the window.

In fact, if you consider the stop-and-go motion by which Rabe typically crafts his plays, then decades of preparation were tossed aside---a shocking blink of an eye.

"My way is to leave something and then come back," Rabe once revealed. The Tony-winning playwright, screenwriter, and novelist was referring to the process of writing his Vietnam trilogy---The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones and Streamers,---which grounds his reputations as one of the country's greatest living dramatists.

Rabe's newest offering, An Early History of Fire---presently running at the Acorn Theatre in Theatre Row---was created in a similarly drawn-out fashion. While jotting down bits and fragments, Rabe toyed with assorted titles. "For a long time, the play was only literally about a hill fire," he says. "When I began to focus on it, the fire image became metaphorical. I began to think about the idea of a Zen reference to the spirit. The idea that life itself is fire. It burns us up."

Then it happened. Early in rehearsals for the New Group's production, with director Jo Bonney at the helm, the ground shifted. "The unconscious burst came," Rabe recalls, "and the entire nature of the play changed in rehearsals. I've never gone into anything like it in my life, where during rehearsals the soul of the play transformed." He estimates a quarter to a third of the play went in a brand new direction.

"Bonney and the actors were more than willing to go with me," Rabe says. "I know it jeopardized the rehearsal time, because I was bringing in all this new stuff, which they loved and welcomed. They raced to the finish. I always used to re-write, but usually I was tinkering or adjusting what was there. Whereas this was a transformation. It's very mysterious."

Set in the early fall of 1962 in small town in the Midwest, the play chronicles the emotional distance between Pop (Gordon Clapp as a widowed refugee from Nazi Germany) and his grown son Danny (Theo Stockman), who works in a factory. A working-class jock, Danny has become resentful and irritable toward his out-of-work father since the death of his mother. Danny also feels trapped by his small-town circumstances, his own tight-lipped inarticulateness, and the goofy friends of his boyhood.

Enter Karen (Claire van der Boom), rich and wild of heart, educated and breathtakingly sensitive, on vacation from a fancy college in the Northeast. She introduces Danny to J.D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac and marijuana. Through the course of Rabe's simmering script, full of ribald humor, missed opportunities, and heartfelt moments of awareness, Danny's heart and mind change. He comes to a new understanding of his place in an uncaring world.

Forget the ghosts of Rabe dramas past. Leave behind the hard-partiers, coke-heads, violent thugs, and burned-out souls of, say, In the Boom Boom Room (1973) or Hurlyburly (1984). An Early History of Fire finds Rabe writing in a new lyrical register, exploring more spiritual territory.

"This play went from being about bitter and repressed characters into becoming a more open-hearted play," he says. "The soul or spirit in the play resides in the way small events accumulate to ignite Danny to act. He opens up."

Rabe, too, opened up as a writer. "It had to do with the moment," he says. "I could have gone with another set of people, and I wouldn't have done what I did. I think there was something fated about the whole thing: the strong connection I made with this particular group of people. It was possibly one of the greatest experiences of my life, this process."

 

Randy Gener is the U.S. editor of Critical Stages, an international journal, and the winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.