By Sarah Downs

What year is it, 1974?  1998? or 2021?  In The Fires a fascinating new play by Raja Feather Kelly, it’s all three – at the same time – and in the same place:  Brooklyn.  In an ancient, railroad apartment, characters in three distinct time periods cross paths in precise yet organic choreography on the same narrow set, oblivious to each other’s existence – sometimes with mere inches to spare.  The play is kind of surrealist drama/dream ballet that is both out of this world and very much of this Earth.  The delicate veils separating the fields of play, as it were, could so easily fray at any moment.

From the beginning, in 1974, Jay (an enigmatic, compelling Phillip James Brannon) sets the tone.  Perennially in the grip of literary inspiration, Jay types away at a furious pace, only to pause almost immediately, losing faith in what he has written.  As George, trying to jolly his mercurial lover out of his poetry-obsessed funk, Ronald Peet gives an affecting performance, fussing in vain to lure Jay out into the sunshine just once.  George faces another challenge:  meeting Jay’s brother, who has come to New York to see if he can ‘talk sense’ into Jay.  Jason Veasey is flawless in a dual role, as Jay’s straightforward, straight-laced (and straight) brother Reggie, and in 2021 as Eli’s breezy, sardonic (and gay) friend Billy.  It’s incredible how effortlessly Veasey pulls off two such diverse character portraits.

In 1998 it’s Sam (Sheldon Best) who falls prey to apartment’s mystery.  Once in, he refuses to step foot outside.  Best possesses an affecting vulnerability as the sensitive young man adrift, grieving the death of his father.   Janelle McDermoth sparkles as Sam’s sister Rowan, at both ages 14 and 21.  Her father’s death has hit Rowan at the worst, most in-between age.  Bratty and bewildered at 14, she grows into a glamorous, sarcastic, self-assured woman of 21.  It took me a good few minutes to realize this was the same actress.  Their mother Leslie (Michelle Wilson), determined to keep her family afloat, is equally determined to maintain her image (or is that fantasy?) of her marriage.  Wilson takes stage as the powerful matriarch with extraordinary presence and subtlety.  I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

In the modern day, it’s Eli (Beau Badu), with his task specific (ahem) music playlists, who is trapped in the apartment, this time by COVID.  The pandemic is seriously cramping his style, especially when it comes to doing ‘research’ for his hook-up culture blog, with a succession of one-night stands, (portrayed by Ronald Peet in another remarkable feat of double-casting.)  Eli knows he wants more, but what?  Facing him on other side of the divide stands Maurice (Jon-Michael Reese) – cautious and a little dazed, yet also longing for change.

The Fires is a marvelous play.  Framed in poetry and graceful gesture, pulsing with a quiet rhythm of near continuous movement across the stage, the piece transports you to an otherworldly realm.  It held me in almost a trance, greatly enhanced by Emily Wells’ haunting music.  Costumers Naoko Nagata and Enver Chakartash channel each era – nailing vintage‘ 70’s leather jackets and pants, and Leslie’s so 1998 belted dress. (I may still have one of those in my closet).  Raphael Mishler’s tomato-red set makes a virtue of necessity out of the SoHo rep’s small stage.  The ubiquitous red color tells us we are starting from a place of pain and fantasy.  Similarly, Bryan Ealey’s lighting simultaneously focuses the action and bathes the peripheral activity in careful shadows.

My one tiny beef:  when real life penetrates the sanctuary, the sequential denouements began to feel a bit drawn out.  Perhaps it was just my feet of clay weighing me down, as I didn’t want to come back to reality.  Nevertheless, I did begin to get antsy.  It is a minor complaint in the scheme of things – the arc of the play, the shape of the language, the narrative complexity, the effortless choreography of body and spirit – add to that a cast with not one weak link.  The Fires is a win-win.

The Fires, written & directed by Raja Feather Kelly.  Featuring Original Music by Emily Wells.   With Beau Badu, Sheldon Best, Phillip James Brannon, Janelle McDermoth, Ronald Peet, Jon-Michael Reese, Jason Veasey, and Michelle Wilson.

Set design by Raphael Mishler, costumes by Naoko Nagata & Enver Chakartash, lighting by Bryan Ealey and sound design by Salvador Zamora.

Runs May 8 – June 16 at Soho Rep, located at 46 Walker Street in Manhattan.  For Tickets go to sohorep.org or call 646-586-8982.  Run Time 1 hr 50 minutes, with no intermission.  Note:  Masks will be required for performance on June 4.  NOTE:  The Fires contains mature content, simulated physical intimacy and discussions of suicide.