In 1942, the Cocoanut Grove was all the rage in Boston. Movie stars, celebrities and the hoi polloi all rubbed shoulders, in an exuberant gathering of music, dancing, dining, and basking in the high life. The Grove was so popular, they had trouble with customers walking the check. Hard to keep track of them all. So some exits were locked, some were hidden. The Fire Marshall was stretched too thin, or remiss in his duties, or maybe both. Some speculated a waiter started the blaze when he struck a match to illuminate a table where the bulb was out. It was common practice for lovers to loosen the light for privacy, and waiters to solve the problem with a quick scratch. Whatever the ingredients in this black magic, this merciless catastrophe, 492 lives were lost, and the world would never be the same.
Playwright James Prince tackles a difficult subject in Inferno: Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942. First the raw facts and then the spiritual, metaphysical implications. We meet different characters: musicians, singers, hat check girl, bus boys, dancers, patrons, and get a feel for the prevailing attitudes of the time. From the newsreels of 1942 with headlines, glamour, trailers from new movies, to the monologues and dialogues between characters, we get a feel for the innocence, the carefree exuberance, that seemed to be everywhere. Then we get descriptions of the holocaust. Fire gobbling drapes, walls, furniture, décor, in an instant. Stampedes of panicked customers, grisly stacks of the dead. Salvation that feels random and inexplicable, acts of heroism and overwhelming injury and destruction.
In any piece that reflects on atrocious events, that change lives before the victims can even process, certain questions arise. Why was I spared? Why did those people die? Why does God permit this kind of ghastly, horrific situation? Why couldn’t I do more? Prince explores this introspection and painful doubt, relief or engulfing despair with sensitivity, intelligence and humanity. He never stoops to the tawdry or the lurid. He does not presume to judge his characters, but gives them the opportunity to share their truths, without suggesting there can be any one satisfying answer. Yes, this calamity forever changed safety regulations, but sadly, there are still those who think they can fudge without consequences. Apart from from these considerations, Prince touches briefly on the more vast implications, just enough to nudge us to the realm of the terrible and awesome.
The Core Theatre presents Inferno: Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942, playing October6th-29th, 2017. 518 W. Arapaho Rd. Suite 115, Richardson, TX 75080 . (214) 930-5338. www.thecoretheatre.org