One depressing measure of America’s predicament after a decade of war in Iraq is that our heritage of Vietnam plays now feels freshly resonant. After many years on the shelf, David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones (1971), newly revived with a sterling cast by the New Group, acquires powers far beyond its script’s limitations. Directed by Scott Elliott, Sticks and Bones summons the specter of truck caravans returning maimed and scarred young vets to a country that won’t allow itself to think about them or what they did “over there.” Shadowy footage of soldiers and brief music clips from that turbulent era help us sense revolt in the air.
Rabe’s drama indicts America’s mindless culture of conformity and suggests the lengths to which it will go when shaken or threatened. It’s 1968. David (Ben Schnetzer) returns to his parents’ home from ‘Nam, now blind and haunted by Fury-like visions of Zung (Nadia Gan), a woman he encountered amid the war’s atrocities. But it’s not a joyful reunion. David has become hostile and estranged from his relentlessly pleasant, denial-filled suburban family. “I think you should know I’ve begun to hate you,” he tells them.
His bewildered parents — named Ozzie (Bill Pullman) and Harriet (Holly Hunter) in one of Rabe’s bald-faced gibes — can’t fathom their son’s anger. Their other boy, the selfish but all-American Rick (Raviv Ullman), staves off genuine contact with evasive perkiness. Ultimately the family must decide how to cope with David’s dark, oracular eruptions. “Murders don’t even know that murder happens,” he says in one pronouncement. And later: “Did you think it was a place like this, sinks and kitchens all the world over?” When the threat turns existential, shaking the family’s complacent faith, they react with brutality in Rabe’s openly polemical (and wildly overstated) final scene.
Despite the setting — a cozy mid-century living room — the play dwells simultaneously in each family member’s consciousness, moving between dialogue and monologue in staccato bursts of interior thought. Rabe relies on symbols that weigh down the play: Harriet brings endless bottles of Coke from the kitchen. Rick constantly shoots an Instamatic camera with a blinding flash. The man with the dark glasses is the only one who can see the truth. (Another symbol simply wanders the house: Zung, mostly silent, appears to David frequently but does not integrate well into the staging.)
In the end, Sticks and Bones is more a powerful statement than a powerful drama. That’s partly because of the structure: The middle sections track Ozzie and Harriet’s repeated (and repetitive) contact with their rageful son, as they unravel. A key scene, in which David waylays the family’s priest, Father Donald (Richard Chamberlain), eventually propels the narrative; his abrupt departure unsettles Harriet, and desperation ensues.
But flawed plays can still be affecting, and Elliott’s blue-chip cast eclipses the drama’s weaknesses. Hunter is especially good as the manically maternal Harriet, whose smothering holds a lethal edge. This is Ozzie’s play above all; in his button-down shirt and oversize glasses, Pullman looks like any dad, but in his gravelly performance, he pulls stature from his almost autistic anguish. That’s important because in this overdrawn drama, Ozzie stands in for all of America — rattled by a crisis it cannot comprehend and lashing out to defend its unquestioning way of life.