I See Fire in the Dead Man's Eye
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 30, 2005
It wasn't until I was on the sidewalk, discussing I See Fire in the Dead Man's Eye with my companion, that I understood that the reason why some of the characters in the play were listening to a soap opera on the radio was that the story takes place in the 1940s or '50s. Now, I'm a pretty alert (not to mention experienced) theatregoer: I can usually pick up stuff like that right away. But Kirk Marcoe's new play is resolutely oblique.
I can tell you what happens in it. David Chandler plays a man named Bob Wright who is very ill and unable to communicate with those around him. The family living room has been transformed into his at-home treatment center, with a hospital bed dead center and a big easy chair just to its right—these are the places where he spends all his time now, except for when he falls on the floor. It's stated at one point that he has lots of tumors, and it's suggested in flashbacks that he was badly wounded in battle (presumably during World War II). It's also suggested, at first, that not only can't he talk—he can't even think straight, or linearly; Marcoe seems to abandon the device of giving Bob his own strange language to communicate with us midway through the play, however, only to pick it up again near the end. What are we supposed to understand about this man?
Around him, his family is falling apart. His wife, Alice, is utterly unable to cope with Bob's illness, and spends her time feeling sorry for herself, yelling at their son, and drinking. Jennifer Van Dyck plays her as all flutter, and Marcoe gives her and us woefully little context with which to frame it. The son, Timothy, is having a particularly bad adolescence: he's clearly alienated by his father's enforced inattention to him and his mother's apparent indifference. He drinks vodka, smokes, and tries to have sex with a neighbor girl and the daughter of the Wrights' maid; later, he burns down a stable on their property. The neighbor girl is the child of a white woman and a long-gone Mexican man; the maid and her daughter are African American (with an offensively stereotyped family life—worthless, out-of-work husband, pregnant daughter, etc,). Bob, in one of his odd reveries, notes that his son is trying to bed a "United Nations" of young ladies (another offensive idea, by the way).
It is noted more than once that the family lives on an island, though which one is never said. Maybe Marcoe means that the United States is an island. Maybe he intends the Wright family, distorted mirror image of 1950s normalcy that they are, to be an ironically-named commentary on the rot at the core of American life. (I think he does, actually.)
Unfortunately, his intentions prove very unclear. What we're left with is time spent with some very unpleasant people behaving (mostly) selfishly. It's a hard sit, and lacks the potent pay-off we keep hoping will occur.
Takeshi Kata's deliberately quirky set puts Bob and his hospital apparatus in a literal sandbox (don't know why). But Matthew Richards's lighting, which makes frequent use of a fluorescent rectangle frame at the rear of the stage, is very cool. Chandler, a fine actor, does what he can with Bob but in the end the character neither appeals to us nor makes much sense. And I don't know why it's called I See Fire in the Dead Man's Eye. In sum—a very confusing, very unsatisfying work of theatre.