Distant Fires | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Pegasus Players

The best and worst thing about Kevin Heelan's Distant Fires is that it's predictable. From the moment we see three white and three black construction workers laying cement we can anticipate the racial tension. We assume there will be crass, sexist jokes and maybe even a fistfight. When we learn that the racist boss will give a prestigious union position to either a highly qualified, hardworking black man or an undistinguished white guy, we know who will get the job. There's nothing surprising in the script, yet that's what makes it so powerful. Heelan presents a tough, realistic vision of a prejudiced society where merit has little to do with success and people act out roles and follow patterns that are as unfair as they are inevitable.

Heelan sticks close to an easy-to-follow recipe: Take six contrasting characters on a summer day, bring their anger to a boil, allow them to work out their differences on their own, and then let them get screwed by the system. The system is personified by the dull, humorless construction boss known only as the General, who must decide whether to give a union bricklaying gig to Thomas, the diligent, reliable black worker, or Beauty, the thickheaded white narcissist. The other workers--the wide-eyed, virginal Angel; the bawdy, apathetic Raymond; and the fiercely political Foos--all know that Thomas deserves the union job, but they know too well that at the end of the day Beauty will wind up with it.

The action takes place on the roof of a building under construction in Ocean City, Maryland, where the smell of smoke still lingers from fires set in nearby race riots the night before. In form the play isn't all that different from David Mamet's early Lakeboat, which tapped into the souls of ordinary workingmen through unadorned presentations of their conversations on board a ship. Most of the pleasure of Heelan's play comes from listening to his commonplace, believable dialogue, which at its best makes the spectator feel more like an eavesdropper than an audience member.

The characters are for the most part realistic, and the subjects they discuss often thought provoking. While working their asses off for an indifferent boss, they all present different strategies for maintaining self-respect, from Foos's need to angrily confront authority to Raymond's ability to avoid confrontation at any cost ("Things is what they is"). The complexity of the relationships among the workers is well realized here. In Thomas and Beauty we see a thin veneer of mutual respect covering feelings of resentment and distrust. And in Foos's anger toward his coworkers we see not only a rebellious attitude but also a sense of pain and loss as he watches the fires burning up his neighborhood.

One of the most interesting aspects of Heelan's play is his treatment of the friction that exists between members of the same race. In his effort to secure the union job Thomas dissociates himself from the angry Foos and the young blacks rioting close by, insisting that he won't bear the blame for fires he didn't start. When punches are finally thrown the conflict is between the two white workers, as the working-class Beauty feels a need to put the college-bound Angel in his place. At the end of the day, when the anger subsides and the workers realize that they accomplish nothing by being enemies, the General enters and announces his decision, which is unaffected by the new spirit of cooperation on the construction site. Heelan's position is clear--men need to unite, but even when they do they're still probably going to get screwed over. It takes more than words to overcome deeply held prejudices--the smoke from the urban riots may represent the only way to get the attention of the racist establishment. It's not an unpredictable observation, but it still packs a punch.

Heelan's play falters when his need to create dramatic action undermines the believability of his characters. The resolution of the characters' conflicts before the downbeat finale feels forced by a need to tie things up. Occasionally the dialogue stretches a little too far, sacrificing realism for the Big Statement--particularly a monologue delivered by Foos about a fallen ice cream cone. His description of chewing through gravel and broken glass so he can savor the one cool, sweet pleasure in his bitter life is a bit much. Though he's a gifted writer of witty repartee, Heelan also has trouble coming up with plausible creative profanity. Frequently the swearing seems gratuitous, and a reference to being "as pissed off as a priest with three pricks" is one of the more peculiar metaphors I've heard this year.

Fresh from his dissection of urban anger in Apple Tree's production of Bill Cain's Stand-Up Tragedy, director Gary Griffin continues to hone his considerable talent for finding the rhythms of everyday conversation. In Pegasus's gripping production the highly talented cast really dig into the script, unearthing subtle forms of interaction beyond what's on the page. Foos and Beauty are show-offy, scenery-chewing roles, and Charles Glenn and Brian Goodman do a great job with these parts. But the show is stolen by Reginald Metcalf, whose portrayal of Raymond is both hilariously funny and painfully real. Robert Smith's stage design, complete with metal girders and what certainly looks like real cement, goes a long way toward capturing the play's intense realism.

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