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The Actors’ Theatre of Washington brings passion and commitment to its staging of David Rabe’s 1971 play Sticks and Bones, but it’s a difficult piece, littered with lengthy poetic monologues that are as crippling to narrative momentum as they are beautifully constructed. The result is 20 minutes’ worth of bracing drama that arrives only after more than two hours of frustrating, glacially paced buildup.

Sticks and Bones is a bitingly comic exploration of the territory where experience and upbringing intersect, a work that takes its inspiration from—but is not necessarily about—the Vietnam War and its effects on our attitudes and assumptions. In some ways it is undeniably dated, but the measured fury that permeates Rabe’s writing gives the piece a kind of lasting, visceral power.

The playwright looks in on a Typical American Family (whose members are pointedly named Ozzie, Harriet, and Rick) as they welcome home an older son, David, who’s been a-soldiering in an unnamed conflict somewhere in the East. David is changed, though, blinded and bitter, and his return unnerves his kin; middle-class complacency gives way rather quickly to anguish on all sides as ugly truths are revealed and “I’m fine” façades are subjected to a brutal battering.

Overseas, David witnessed the casual, horrific cruelty of which young men at war with an alien society are capable; he learned how animal is the heart that beats within the suburban-bred beast, and he began to despise the blithe assumptions of superiority, the shallow competitiveness and consumerist ideals that pass for virtue in his native culture.

Deprived of sight, he found his eyes opened to the narrow-minded values of his childhood by a relationship with a member of the people he’d been sent to subdue. But his enlightenment wasn’t total, and when the time for choosing came, he abandoned his lover rather than deal with the complications of bringing her home. Now, back among his family, he regrets that choice even as he discovers vestiges of his family’s prejudices within himself: “She is the thing most possibly of value in my life….She is garbage and filth and I must get her back if I wish to live.”

Understandably, his relatives and the cultural values they embody become the target of his anger. He doesn’t hate them, though, and neither does Rabe. Briskly efficient Harriet, emotionally deprived and smotheringly, artificially maternal; hopelessly ineffectual Ozzie, dreaming banal dreams of past athletic glory; stunted, thoughtless eating-machine Rick; Sticks and Bones is marked primarily by a scorching pity for these people, a sense of profound despair that they can’t see beyond themselves. Rabe even offers a slender hope, in a couple of those cumbersome soliloquies, that Ozzie can come to understand and transcend his limitations. He hasn’t done so by the time the play reaches its grim conclusion, but the possibility remains.

Director Michael Russotto understands that this is as much Ozzie’s show as David’s, but his high-concept staging unfortunately dehumanizes the noncombatant Nelsons, removing any ambiguity about their worth. Set, costumes, and actors (except John Benoit as David) are all done up in various shades of gray—down to hair and makeup—as though they’ve literally stepped out of a Kennedy-era sitcom broadcast. Even the milk they incessantly drink has a decidedly charcoal cast. It’s clever, yes, and stylishly executed (Martha Mountain’s wry set and Scott Burgess’ moodily atmospheric sound design deserve special praise). But the conceit makes Ozzie a figure for ridicule, not regret; who cares whether a caricature can find redemption? “There is no evidence of me,” Ozzie says at one point, and this production insists that that is as it should be; “There is inside me a kind of grandeur,” he protests, and his ashen countenance encourages us to doubt it.

Scott Sparks’ aggressively charmless characterization of Nelson père doesn’t help. The closest this play comes to catharsis is when, in the second act, Ozzie begins to understand, even to feel, some of David’s rage, only to push it ruthlessly away and turn back into the comfort of his denial; Sparks blunders and howls his way through the passage, utterly unaffecting in his torment.

Benoit is more adept as David, vulnerable and awkward and menacing, as frightened as he is frightening, and effortlessly, believably haunted in the character’s visionary moments. It’s not a polished performance exactly, but it is at times tremendously moving. The others in the cast range from accomplished (Paula Gruskiewicz as Harriet) to relatively inexperienced (Andrew Price as Rick), and they all acquit themselves reasonably well. Gruskiewicz perhaps deserves more credit than that, as her character—actively annoying on paper—is one of the least grating in this production.

Kudos to Russotto for putting so much heart into a troubling, troubled work; would that the results were less uneven.CP