"STREAMERS," David Rabe's harrowing Vietnam drama, is a readymade opportunity for Chicago's Steppenwolf troupe to strut its blood-sweat-and-tears stuff. And in this revival at the Kennedy Center's Free Theater, director Terry Kinney and his excellent ensemble create scenes of eye-covering, shudder-inducing psychic terror -- even the silences scream.
The third in Rabe's trilogy of plays about Vietnam and its aftermath, "Streamers" takes place entirely in a barracks in nearby Virginia in 1965. Though the front is physically far removed, its presence is pervasive, as more men are shipped out daily, while those in training camp snap from tension and fear.
The play's denouement is inevitable and its objectives are often murky, but Rabe's free-flowing dialogue is authentic-sounding. Through it, "Streamers" speaks not just of the Vietnam war but about a communal hell created when men from vastly different worlds are thrown together, subjected to the masking and regimentation demanded by military life.
Rabe's roomful of characters represent the disturbed elements of a deeply divided America: all-American Billy, deeply disturbed beneath his perfect veneer; Roger, an upwardly mobile black who has learned to maneuver in both worlds; Richie, who sets the dominoes to falling with his coy homosexual gameplaying; and an interloper -- deadly, feral Carlyle, enraged because he knows he is being treated as a subhuman, meat for the military grinder. In these men, Rabe has a highly combustible combination, and as layers of irreconcilable conflicts are brought to light, an explosion is unavoidable.
Opening with the attempted suicide of a terrified recruit, the play is full of portentous symbols of men who no longer have control. The title, for example, taken from a parodic song, "Beautiful Streamers," is, according to a pair of drunken old-timers, what a man sings when he realizes his parachute won't open and he plummets helplessly to his fate.
As an acting ensemble, the Steppenwolves are more than any playwright could hope for. Particularly affecting performances are given by artistic director Gary Sinise as Billy and Jeff Perry as Richie. And the face-to-face confrontations between the fey, calculating Richie and the elemental Carlyle, played with fearsome, physical presence by Ving Rhames, have a sweaty, palpable urgency.
The drama is enhanced by Kevin Rigdon's artful lighting and claustrophobic, khaki-drab one-room set. "Streamers" is a fitting and forceful conclusion to the American National Theater's "Chicago Season," which has shaken Washington audiences by the throat this summer.
A caution: the play contains coarse language, brief nudity and graphic violence that may be offensive to some. All the free tickets to "Streamers" have already been disributed, but for those who wish to chance it, a few tickets are made available before each show. Arrive an hour before curtain time.
STREAMERS -- At the Free Theater at the Kennedy Center Theater Lab through August 10.