If war is hell, then waiting for it must take place in a particularly bad section of purgatory. In his 1976 play "Streamers," being performed by the Elden Street Players, David Rabe takes audiences inside an Army boot-camp barracks to find a group of men waiting to be shipped off to Vietnam. Battles are fought in this claustrophobic and pressurized setting, but they are the frustrated flailing of men who are ultimately powerless over their fates. Conflicts about race, sex and status are just as deadly as those fought in bloody jungles overseas.
Rabe, a medical corpsman in Vietnam, channeled his experiences into a trio of plays ("Streamers," "Sticks and Bones" and "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel") that propelled him into the top ranks of American theater in the 1970s. He vividly utilized often brutal dialogue to highlight the emotions and anxieties of young men facing uncertain fates.
"Streamers" is a slang Army term that refers to soldiers falling to their deaths if parachutes fail to open properly, the useless cloth streaming above them. It is the ultimate helplessness, reflecting Rabe's dismal view of the military experience. The Elden Street Players have brought this searing, violent drama crackling to life with an unusually tight ensemble created by director Bob Bartlett.
Richie, played by Christopher Tully, gives off mixed signals about his sexuality, although some of the confusion may be Tully's exaggerated take on several of the character's comments and mannerisms that seem as mocking as they are revealing. Billy, played by Jim Wachhus, is a small-town college graduate, a naive boy in a man's body that Wachhus constantly has poised on the brink of blubbering.
Roger, played by Christopher C. Holbert, comes closest to serving as Everyman. He's sensible and direct, an African American draftee who seems to have found a home in the Army, but who could probably fit in anywhere. Billy and Roger can't face the fact that Richie might really be homosexual. Race and social standing don't seem to be issues for them, perhaps because of the leveling influence of Army indoctrination.
They are a tight-knit group in their little barracks, a sanctuary invaded by Carlyle, a charismatic predator who discerns and exploits their individual weaknesses and fears. Also black, Carlyle preys on Roger's sense of racial identity while simultaneously forcing him and Billy to take a clear look at Richie, whom he goads into an unambiguous sexual declaration.
Elden Street newcomer DaRon Ross offers a stunningly effective performance as Carlyle. Ross's presence creeps up on you, and he takes control of the play before you realize it. His Carlyle is a tightly coiled, almost feral creature without a trace of self-consciousness. He prowls the barracks and silently seethes with inner rage. Carlyle adapts his persona to both Richie and Roger to manipulate them, but he simply bullies the immature Billy. He pushes Billy to his breaking point, which leads to a ferocious climax for the production.
The play has some lighthearted banter one might expect in a barracks. It generated laughter, but some seemed to come at odd moments opening night. (Maybe some audience members use laughter to release mounting inner tension.) Bartlett has a deft touch, opening the play with a stylized and ballet-like scene of men silently and slowly surrounding one of their own who has attempted suicide, imagery re-created at the finale.
Bartlett, however, may have let Bruce Ward and Mark Mead go too far in their portrayals of drunken veterans Cokes and Rooney, who slobber and crawl all over the set in two overly long scenes that the playwright might well have eliminated because they break the dramatic flow. Ward does a dazzling monologue at the end of the play, but it seems tacked on to a story already ended.
"Streamers" will continue through Feb. 15, performed by the Elden Street Players at the Industrial Strength Theater, 269 Sunset Business Park Dr., Herndon. Showtime is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 7 p.m. Feb. 9. For tickets, call 703-481-5930.