STAGE REVIEW : Embers of Racism Smolder in ‘Distant Fires’

“Distant Fires,” in its West Coast premiere at the International City Theater in Long Beach, is a blue-collar play about racial heat reduced to dying embers.

Injustice in this play smolders like a log, but there’s no conflagration. The drama, by East Coast playwright Kevin Heelan, couldn’t be more racially contemporary (though it’s set in the early ‘70s) nor serve as a stronger theatrical prelude to Black History Month.

Seldom has the working stiff been rendered with such naturalistic detail. A hot sun beats down on five hard-hats--three blacks and two whites--who are rigging steel rods and preparing to pour cement on the top floor of a construction site rising 10 stories above a Maryland shore.

And this is a construction site. Set designer Don Llewellyn fills the breadth of the stage with shored-up planking, reinforced rods that create a checkerboard of steel, great wooden shafts and even a cement mixer with wet cement. A dome of sun splashes through blue skies. The illusion is perfect--and the best and almost giddy part of it is that you feel 10 stories high.

One of the white characters (played by Jack Esformes) is a preppie only working for the summer. The role smacks of an autobiographical summer that playwright Heelan might have had. This college-bound character is despised by the other white laborer (Randall Brady in a terrific, cocksure swagger) who won’t be going anywhere when the fall semester rolls around except back to the shovel. He’s a lifer, he knows it and flaunts it.

The trio of black workers are vivid, individual imprints who also happen to represent a microcosm of ambition (actor Tommy Ford), acceptance (Jason Edwards) and anger (Vincent J. Issac). In a touching portrait flecked with humor by the gangly Issac, the angry character shows up for work half-loaded and seething over his treatment by police the night before when the cops took away his dignity and his beloved ice cream in the middle of a neighborhood riot (the distant fires of the title).

This figure is the play’s forlorn, intellectual voice of the ‘60s, of the fire next time, whose energy is now burned out. His real nemesis is not the whites who work around him but the apolitical, upwardly mobile black crew chief (an infectiously likable performance by Ford) who toils like the devil so he can get promoted to a union bricklaying job. That will be his dignity. If justice prevails.

A sixth character, the crew’s white foreman (Brett Weir), who appears intermittently, is not your ugly cliche boss. He’s really a nice guy. Just a racist is all.

Deborah LaVine directs deftly on a set that’s loaded with booby traps for the actor. Michael Pacciorini’s costumes and Paulie Jenkins’ lighting design aptly complement the production.

Performances are at 4901 E. Carson St., Long Beach (on the campus of Long Beach City College), Fridays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m., through Feb. 7. Tickets: $8. (213) 420-4275.