WELLFLEET — His voice choked, a war-haunted young man just home from Vietnam confronts his parents with an anguished question: “Why didn’t you tell me what I was?’’
Over the course of David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones,’’ now at Harbor Stage Company in a mesmerizing production directed by Lewis D. Wheeler, that young man will, bit by harrowing bit, tell his parents what they are. In the process, Rabe tells us what we are, or at least what we’re capable of.
The answers are not reassuring.
“Sticks and Bones’’ does not feel in the least bit dated, its roots in Vietnam War-era fury and disillusion notwithstanding. This fierce and unsettling work, which won the 1972 Tony Award for best play, resonates at a time when soldiers are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to reacclimate to civilian life and explain things to their loved ones that might be hard to put into words.
Rabe found the words. There’s nothing realistic in the traditional sense about “Sticks and Bones,’’ but it captures the capital-R reality of war about as well as any writer ever has, while never going anywhere near a battlefield.
The writer Michael Arlen called Vietnam “the living room war’’ because it was the first war that unfolded on our TV screens, and a living room (the spare but effective set design at Harbor Stage is by Cristina Todesco) is where most of the play takes place.
There’s a timelessness to Rabe’s indictment of our national propensity for violence and our complacency in the face of the terrible deeds that are done abroad in our name. It’s an indictment to which the playwright gives compellingly varied dramatic shape. There’s nothing of the political tract about “Sticks and Bones,’’ unless you consider, say, “Lysistrata’’ a tract.
Wheeler mines the vein of dark comedy that runs through “Sticks and Bones’’ without sacrificing any of its intensity. His father would be proud. David Wheeler, a central figure in Boston theater history who died earlier this year, directed Al Pacino in a storied 1972 Theatre Company of Boston production of Rabe’s “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.’’ In 1977, he directed “Pavlo Hummel’’ on Broadway, again starring Pacino, who won a Tony for his performance.
The family at the center of “Sticks and Bones’’ bear the all-American names of Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Rick. David (Alex Pollock), the older of the family’s two sons, has returned home from service in Vietnam, blinded and bitter. Pollock plays David as a hollowed-out, soft-voiced figure, drained of everything save a determination to make his family face the truth about the violence he’s witnessed and committed, and their culpability (and, by extension, ours) in both.
They don’t want to hear it. Nor, for most of the play, do any of them see what David sees: the silent figure of Zung (Caitlin Wilson), a young Vietnamese woman whom he loved deeply but left behind. What David’s family wants is for him to shut up about the war so they can return to what they define as normality.
In an excellent performance as Ozzie, Robert Kropf channels the hearty TV fathers of the 1950s and early ’60s. Kropf’s Ozzie is all jittery bonhomie, a wheedling tone in his voice as he tries to bond with David by telling stories of his own experience of war, which was limited to helping build jeeps during World War II.
There’s a poignancy to this confused Everydad, but a terrible complicity, too. (And eventually, a ruthlessness.) Rabe was still in his 20s when he wrote “Sticks and Bones,’’ and the Ozzie-David dynamic embodies the intergenerational j’accuse that was a constant undercurrent of the Vietnam years. In a corner of the family living room sits a TV on wheels, which Ozzie turns to longingly, as if it possesses talismanic properties, or at least the answers to his questions. Yet, tellingly, it’s not the war Ozzie has questions about, but the emptiness of his life.
The carefree, guitar-strumming Rick has no questions about anything. There’s comic relief to be found in this character, but he’s horrifying, too: His is a moral blindness. Teddy Lytle delivers on both counts in his portrayal.
As Harriet, the mother who seemingly believes there’s no problem that can’t be solved with another serving of cake, Brenda Withers creates another eerie, perfectly calibrated portrait in soullessness, to go along with her portrayal of the title character in Harbor Stage’s “Hedda Gabler’’ earlier this summer and her turn last year as a creepy suburban usurper in a play she wrote, “The Ding Dongs, or What Is the Penalty in Portugal?,’’ at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.
Withers has rare powers of concentration. I’ve seldom seen an actor so utterly focused every second she is onstage. She is always on the move as Harriet, with a kind of gliding trot and a posture as stiff as her hairdo. Her Harriet seems determined to both outrun and outsmile unpleasant facts.
But Harriet, too, is capable of ruthlessness when she recognizes the depth of a threat to the established order. Withers lets us see the chilling, bottom-line calculus Harriet is making behind that perma-smile, adding up who matters and who, ultimately, does not.