On a cold January evening in 1985, John DiFusco was all dressed up with everywhere to go, yet still felt lonely and alone in the packed lobby of New York’s Public Theater. The war-collage play Tracers, which DiFusco directed and co-wrote with fellow Vietnam War veterans, had just premiered. The black-tie, opening-night party swirled around him, but nothing felt right for the Los Angeles resident.

“What’s the matter with you?” asked Joe Papp, the Public’s legendary founder.

“I find this all a little hard to handle,” was all DiFusco could say.

“Nonsense, young man,” Papp encouraged. “Success is easy to handle — it’s failure that’s hard. Get out there and join the party!”

Whatever doubts DiFusco had about Tracers vanished later on when Papp stood on a chair and read aloud the early-morning edition of The New York Times.

“The inventive Mr. DiFusco,” wrote Frank Rich, “uses sound effects, skillful lighting and balletic movement — but little scenery — to make us smell the stench of death.” Tracers was a hit.

Since 1980, when the show first opened at West L.A.’s Odyssey Theater, DiFusco has been known as “the Tracers guy,” which, he says today, has become something of an albatross about his neck.

“People think I only direct plays that have guys, guns and beer,” he says.

More important, over time it seemed that Tracers would be the only play written by DiFusco, who is a familiar actor, director and fight choreographer in local theater. After all, he has not written a piece for the stage in 25 years. That spell ends this week with the premiere of Walk’n Thru the Fire at the Hayworth Theater. In a way, as DiFusco points out, Fire is actually his first play written solely by himself, since Tracers was a collaborative work on which DiFusco is usually credited as “conceiver” or “creator.” His new work deals, as did Tracers, with tragedy and celebration, striding through the decades with the deaths of the playwright’s five siblings as guideposts.

“My family is really, really close — especially the siblings,” DiFusco says one morning in the rec room of the Montrose apartment complex his wife, Lupe, manages. DiFusco, born on New Year’s Eve, 1947, grew up in a New England of tightly bound ethnic communities in which marriage between couples of different nationalities was viewed as almost miscegenation. His mother was of Swedish stock, while his father’s parents came from Italy; both worked hard in the small Massachusetts town of Webster to support their 10 children. DiFusco’s father was a former prizefighter who moved into road construction, while his mother worked in the Bates shoe factory next door to the DiFusco home. John still remembers the oppressive smell of chemicals and leather — which he eventually sampled close up when it came his turn to work at Bates.

“In these towns,” DiFusco says, “there’s a class system and we were in the middle.” The teenage John was always trying to rise within that system. He and a friend typically spent Saturday nights hitchhiking to outlying towns where they were not known at the local dance venues.

“We were playing the class system,” he says, “pretending to be something we weren’t.”

In 1967, John, like many young men before and after, joined the military to better himself. Vietnam didn’t exactly open doors to high society, but it brought DiFusco to a deeper connection to men than he’d ever experienced.

“There’s probably no stronger male bonding than that in the military,” he says, “and no more so there than in combat.”

When he returned to the States, he was stationed in Riverside, California, and one night, with his head filled with pot and the angry anti-war rhetoric of a young man he’d just left at a party ringing in his head, DiFusco floored his car’s gas pedal on an offramp heading back to George Air Force Base.

“I didn’t even hit the guardrail,” he says. “I went right over it and down a hill. All I got was this cut on my head.” A Highway Patrol cop arrested DiFusco for driving drunk. After John mentioned that he’d recently returned from the war, the cop brusquely replied, telling him that his Vietnam experience “is your problem.” The young war vet would never forget those words.

A few years later, in 1973, after taking theater classes at Cal State Long Beach, DiFusco stood in the debris-littered hulk of a West L.A. warehouse that was about to become the Odyssey Theater. At the end of one room sat a man at a desk.

“Ron Sossi had a phone and a phone book,” DiFusco remembers. “And a book called Zen in the Art of Archery. We had a spiritual conversation, and I became part of his company without auditioning.” By the end of the decade, he began to look back in anger at the Highway Patrol cop’s insult and realized, “Us guys don’t have a play.” From that grew Tracers, which opened at the Odyssey to critical acclaim.

He rode that acclaim a long way. Tracers later enjoyed a solid run at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater under Gary Sinise’s direction. Steppenwolf had wanted to move the show to New York, but DiFusco, with bravado that probably would be unthinkable in today’s money-driven theater environment, insisted not only on rewriting parts of the play, but directing it himself with a vets-only cast — actors that were “us guys.”

DiFusco stuck to his guns and eventually met with Papp, who green-lighted the project at his Public Theater — unaware that someone there had previously rejected the script. The New York success moved the play to London and to tours near and far from Los Angeles.

“I was very uncomfortable with fame and attention,” he says. “People come and talk to you, but it’s not really you they’re talking to. They have this glazed look as though they’re talking to a thing.”

DiFusco did not know how to play the fame game — he was not a self-promoter and did nothing to exploit his prime role in Tracers. When the touring finally stopped, he returned to L.A. to find himself yesterday’s news and had to rebuild his reputation by directing as many plays as he could.

“I stepped on my own toes, careerwise” he admits today, “because I was so shy about the spotlight.”

Walk’n Thru the Fire is a two-act evening that incorporates poetry, movement and music. It began as a solo show but now includes DiFusco and four young actors who have been rehearsing above the mariachi music blaring from La Fonda restaurant downstairs.

Even during its stop-and-go run-throughs, a Kerouacian rhythm ran throughout Fire — often an urgent, searching monologue about what it means to be a young man, to escape the smothering embrace of small-town life and, inevitably, to confront death. DiFusco’s toddler sister Jill was the first of his five siblings to perish, after severely burning herself while playing with a cigarette lighter. His biker brother, Freddie, died in a motorcycle crash. Later, John returned to Webster from California to help with the funeral of Mike, who died of heart failure, and a few days later, his sister Pat’s sudden death would turn the sad event into a double funeral. Finally, his sister Dolly died of lung cancer.

One of Walk’n Thru the Fire’s most vivid scenes comes in a Webster cemetery, where John and his sister Jackie, now in their 30s, pay their respects to Jill and Freddie. While the two survivors speak to headstones, they discover that passing bikers have also visited the graveyard — and have left half a gram of cocaine and a joint on Freddie’s tombstone. John and Jackie partake of the offerings, and perhaps some of that moment’s levity guides the show’s journey. DiFusco sees himself as one of history’s survivors and believes that his show offers more hope than tears.

“If anyone learns anything from it,” DiFusco says of Walk’n Thru the Fire, “it’s that grief is survivable.”

Walk’n Thru the Fire is being performed at the Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, and plays through July 21. For tickets, call (213) 389-9860.

LA Weekly