The horror of Nov. 28, 1942, resonates down through the years in James Hansen Prince's flawed but potent "Inferno: Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942," which plays the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts through April 3.
Nearly 500 people died as a result of the fire at the Boston nightclub, and many more people's lives were permanently damaged, by burns or the trauma of the experience, but its cause was never officially determined. Overcrowding, flammable decor, and blocked exit doors contributed to the tragedy.
"Inferno" has 14 actors playing 23 characters, and mixes straightforward dramatic scenes with monologues addressed to the audience. Playwright Prince, who also directs "Inferno," is the artistic director of the Core Theatre in Richardson, Texas, where it premiered last year. His inspiration was a distant relative who was at the Cocoanut Grove that night. It's difficult to forget that the club, in what is now Bay Village, was less than a mile from the theater where the play is now being performed.
After a slow start, "Inferno" begins to gather strength in the first act with the appearance of Chelsea Evered as Ann Clark, a 16-year-old on a date at the club. Her bubbly innocence functions for the audience like that brief pause at the top of a roller coaster's first hill: "Oh, no."
Among the others we meet: Stanley the bus boy (Owen Burke), who was unfairly blamed the rest of his life for accidentally touching off the blaze; the spunky cigarette girl Bunny (Hannah Matusow); the movie cowboy Buck Jones (John C. Hogwood, a Core Theatre actor in the mostly Bostonian cast); the comically bickering couple Hewson and Hilda Grey (Steve Auger and Holly Schaff); and Harvard student James Jenkins (Michael Barry), Prince's real-life relative.
The blaze itself is depicted only as a brief interlude of red light on stage and terrible sounds from offstage. Then the house lights come up for intermission. Whoa.
The heart of the second act consists of monologues by characters describing their experiences during and after the fire, drawn from actual accounts of panic and heroism. Flammable decorations and locked or blocked exit doors cost many lives. Some escape, some die, all are changed.
The play's pivot point is a single agonized speech by a firefighter named Sheehan (Hogwood again, terrific here), who climbed over bodies to enter the club even as the blaze still burned. What he saw is what you'll be thinking about hours after you leave the theater.
More forgettable are pre- and post-fire scenes that focus on Cocoanut Grove owner Barney Welansky (Alexander Stravinski), who was not at the club on the night of the fire, and spunky newspaper reporter Margaret Wilson (Eva Bilick), a character Prince invented. Their awkward dialogue includes unnecessary exposition about the mobbed-up history of the club (research the playwright didn't want to waste?), banter about sexism in the newspaper business, and even a hint of mutual attraction. The youthful Stravinski seems miscast as the sophisticated player Welansky, but the script does these two actors no favors. Their final scene, set after Welansky's release from prison on fire-related manslaughter charges, lacks the emotional payload it's supposed to deliver.
Prince also wants to deliver a message about fire safety, and includes scenes with a Boston fire department inspector (Auger again, very good) who denies responsibility for the fatal violations of code and common sense. The play notes that laws were changed in response to the disaster. But after the final line of dialogue, video from inside the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island is projected on the backdrop, reminding us that some things never change.
Inferno: Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942
Written and directed by James Hansen Prince. Presented by the Core Theatre. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through April 3. Tickets: $25-$40, at www.bostontheatrescene.com or 617-933-8600