Chicago is supposed to be a brash, brawling sort of town, a no-holds-barred, pull-out-the-stops sort of place. If the town's reflection in its theater is any guide, this reputation is well-earned, for this summer season of imports at the Kennedy Center from two Chicago theaters has deployed on local stages some of the most robust, vital and vigorous acting we've seen for a long time.
"Streamers," which opened Tuesday night, is the second of two plays from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and it explodes with the intensity of a fist smashing through a window. It opens with blood dribbling from the slit wrists of a suicidal Army private, and before it ends the stage has become a virtual battlefield of carnage. The title refers to parachutes that don't open, but it might also have something to do with the streams of blood that splash, gurgle and splurt onto the linoleum floor of playwright David Rabe's Army barracks.
The play is set during the Vietnam war, and while the prospect of being sent to "Disneyland" to kill "gooks" looms over the characters like a storm cloud, it is not a play about Vietnam. It is not really about homosexuality either, although the insinuation that one of the men, Richie, is gay, focuses much of the dialogue and triggers a chain of emotions that ends in tragedy.
In a sense, "Streamers" is a play about men and the singularly male culture that creates the military environment in which these disparate types meet and collide. It reflects the traditional male longing for personal valor, and the equally traditional male unwillingness to acknowledge weakness, to confront fear, and to accept nonconformity. Billy, the college-educated draftee, is so homophobic that he ultimately loses all self-control; Carlyle (Ving Rhames), the streetwise black, can relate to others only through intimidation or posturing. The two older sergeants, ostensibly rulers of this small empire, are maudlin drunks, bragging about their exploits and playing hide-and-seek like children.
Billy (Gary Sinise) and Roger (Erik King), a black man who sees career possibilities in the Army, have a friendship founded on their mutual appreciation of order, sports and camaraderie. They share a room with Richie (Jeff Perry), a self-consciously effeminate New Yorker who barely hides his own loneliness. Into this delicately balanced group thunders Carlyle, looking for a fellow black to be friends with. They are all frustrated, anxious, and in one way or another, angry -- at life, or the humiliations of low-level Army life, or the possible death waiting for them in Vietnam.
This play is not about war -- it is a war, with much of the physical and emotional brutality of a more organized conflict. It calls for an intense union among performers, directors and playwright, which an actor-oriented company like Steppenwolf can provide. Every performance is taut, the uncontrol is perfectly controlled, and the graphic simplicity of Rabe's dialogue is as much a part of the characters as their sweat. Director Terry Kinney, a cofounder of the company, has orchestrated his actors with such finesse that the play's flaws -- the character of Carlyle approaches cliche' and the dimensions of his havoc seem implausible -- are masked.
Several people left the theater during the last half of "Streamers" opening night, apparently overwhelmed by the all-too-convincing violence. It is not a play for the squeamish. Streamers, by David Rabe, produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, directed by Terry Kinney, sets and lights by Kevin Rigdon, costumes by Nan Cibula, special effects and makeup by Susan Mayer. With Randall Arney, Vito D'Ambrosio, Afram Duende', Dennis Farina, Erik King, Ron McLarty, Jeff Perry, Ving Rhames, Gary Sinise, Alan Wilder. At the Free Theater through Aug. 10.