NEW YORK—When David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones” first appeared in 1971 when producer Joseph Papp brought the play to the Public Theater downtown, it created a furor, with some audience members walking out in a huff. A year later, Papp was able to bring it to Broadway, where it won the Tony Award for Best Play.
Dealing with the return of a Vietnam veteran to his U.S. home, it salted old wounds and caused new ones to open. Of the three plays that Rabe, an army veteran of 11 months in Vietnam, wrote regarding that conflict (the other two: “The Basic Education of Pavlo Hummel” and “Streamers”), “Sticks and Bones” was written while the war was still raging. Attacking stereotypes of placid Middle America, the play packed an emotional wallop.
The present production, directed by Scott Elliot, artistic director of The New Group, still seethes with unsettling fervor and poses provocative questions. More recent veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan can arguably find that much of the play’s content speaks stingingly to them.
Interrupting the conventional evening family gathering of Ozzie (Bill Pullman), wife Harriet (Holly Hunter), and younger son Rick (Raviv Ullman), comes a tough, confident black army sergeant (Morocco Omari), almost thrusting upon them their son, David (Ben Schnetzer). (It is not by chance that Rabe named this family after the once popular sitcom, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”)
David’s arrival presents an unexpected shock for the family, particularly when they discover that David is now blind from combat in ‘Nam. Although the home group tries its best, they are discomfited when David expresses negative feelings. It doesn’t feel like home, he claims, and he wants to get away.
But the strict sergeant has handed off his charge and requires a signature to prove it. He informs them that he’s accompanied by a large convoy of truckloads of other returning vets, and he’s got to get going, all across America.
None of the family wants to hear bad news. Harriet thinks everything can be solved with a serving of homemade cake or fudge and coffee. But if things get too heavy-going she can call upon the neighborhood priest, Father Donald (played by the still handsome Richard Chamberlain), to come and reason with the offending family member.
In one scene, David, enraged by the Father’s hypocrisy, attacks the priest physically, leaving him dumbfounded and possibly unwilling to ever return.
Ozzie stays pretty much in denial, although he expresses resentment when he mentions having had to stay behind and do mechanics’ work instead of contributing by being sent overseas. Now he is stuck with a son who has accomplished less than desired in the war.
Younger son Rick, ever chipper and cheerful as he strums his guitar and flash-photographs various family poses, shows a darker, vengeful side when later too much painful truth intrudes upon his and the others’ complacency.
Specters of racism and bigotry seep in, particularly when mention is made of the lovely young Vietnamese woman (played silently but hauntingly by the gentle Nadia Gan) who had given David comfort in Vietnam. She silently floats in and out of the play, appearing to visit David in his bedroom.
Although the play is long (two-and-a-half hours), and possibly overwritten in some of the early scenes, the production holds together beautifully. It is a shining example of unity in acting and production.
Bill Pullman’s Ozzie is a masterful portrayal, easily changing mood and intent. Holly Hunter demonstrates how a tiny, birdlike woman can convey tremendous power.
Ben Schnetzer shows various sides of an unsupported veteran. Raviv Ullman skillfully executes a quick change in his portrayal.
Richard Chamberlain is properly appealing and unctuous; Morocco Umari contributes a sharp cameo.
Sets (Derek McLane), costumes (Susan Hilferty), lighting (Peter Kaczorowski), sound and music (Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen), projections (Olivia Sebesky), all contribute to make “Sticks and Bones” a memorable theatrical experience.
‘Sticks and Bones’
The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St.
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or TheNewGroup.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Closes: Dec. 14
Diana Barth publishes New Millennium, an arts publication.