Fish Soup and Bad Weather, Across the Decades
The forecast is continually gloomy in “When the Rain Stops Falling,” a sorrow-sodden family drama by Andrew Bovell that opened on Monday night at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Nobody in Mr. Bovell’s time-skipping saga, sensitively directed by David Cromer (“Our Town”), is ever far from an umbrella, making this Lincoln Center Theater production entirely apposite for the city’s long, strange and soggy winter.
The heavy weather doesn’t stop at the precipitation of the title. Fractured marriages, accidental deaths, disappearing children, suicide and a chart-topping horror that it’s best not to give away all make appearances in this fitfully moving but diagrammatic play about the long legacy of unnatural acts.
The play opens in the future, the year 2039, as a big fish falls from the sky in Alice Springs, Australia, where the desperate Gabriel York (a fierce Michael Siberry) has just been wondering what to serve his son, Andrew, for lunch. Gabriel has not seen his son in many years because he abandoned the family when Andrew was just a boy.
“I know why he is coming,” Gabriel confesses, his searching eyes bright with remembered shame. “He wants what all young men want from their fathers. He wants to know who he is. Where he comes from. Where he belongs. And for the life of me I don’t know what I will tell him.”
Certainly it is a complicated story. The play jigsaws across the better part of a century, moving between London and various locations in Australia as Mr. Bovell charts the bound fates of two families and several generations. As illuminated by an ensemble cast that infuses these disturbed and sometimes disturbing characters with soulful, affecting depths, the relationships eventually emerge with an emotional clarity that the play’s elliptical structure works against.
Although it moves back and forth among the decades, with characters from disparate eras sometimes sharing the stage, the tale essentially begins in London in 1959, where the middle-class marriage of the bookish Henry and Elizabeth Law (Richard Topol and Kate Blumberg) shows strains when odd incidents begin to befall Henry after the couple’s son is born.
Henry’s confession that he inadvertently began “pleasuring” himself on the commuter train strikes me as rather blithe for the era — or any era — as does Elizabeth’s shrugging reception of this news. “No wonder you forgot your umbrella,” she sympathetically observes. Worse is to come, but piecing together the puzzle takes time, as the play also shows us glimpses of the alcoholic Elizabeth some years on, now played by Mary Beth Hurt, entertaining her frosty 28-year-old son, Gabriel (Will Rogers), over the same fish soup that she was preparing for his father many years before.
Gabriel’s truculence stems from a stewing dissatisfaction over his father’s mysterious disappearance when Gabriel was 7, a subject about which his mother has remained stubbornly reticent. This unease will ultimately send him on a journey to Australia, where he will meet a lonely young woman with her own legacy of familial woe: Gabrielle York (Susan Pourfar), as she is coincidentally called, lost both her parents in the aftermath of a tragedy involving her brother’s disappearance.
Mr. Bovell is big on coincidences and on recurring motifs, even recurring bits of dialogue. Across the generations, fish soup is prepared and served. Across the generations, characters make wry jokes about the weather, noting that people are “drowning in Bangladesh.” Across the generations, the channels of communication between children and their parents are stymied by the secrets of the past.
But Mr. Bovell’s elaborate structure tends to keep us at a cool distance from the characters. Noting the patterns, absorbing the repeated imagery, diagramming the genealogy in your head — not to mention wondering at the obsession with fish soup — you may find it hard to fully immerse yourself in the destinies of the people onstage. This is despite terrific work from Mr. Cromer’s astutely assembled cast, which infuses the schematic storytelling with regular jolts of powerful emotion.
The actresses playing the younger and older Elizabeth and Gabrielle offer nicely matched portraits. Ms. Pourfar’s young Gabrielle is tense with yearning but also wary of committing herself to an affair with the affable young Gabriel, haunted as she is by the shadows of the past. These have darkened considerably in Victoria Clark’s moving portrait of the older Gabrielle. Further losses and afflictions have turned her into a ghostly, tormented figure at war with both the memories of her younger self and her long-suffering husband, Joe (Rod McLachlan).
Ms. Blumberg, as the young Elizabeth, blends a 1950s wifely warmth with a crisp intelligence. (She counters Henry’s rather weird bits of trivia about weather history with learned notes about cultural events taking place at the same time.) The shocks of life have drained the warmth from the Elizabeth played with a hard asperity by Ms. Hurt, leaving behind just the tough-minded mother closed off from an open relationship with her son by the secrets she refuses to divulge.
The men are likewise fine, with Mr. Rogers touchingly awkward as Gabriel; Mr. McLachlan endearing as the devoted but neglected Joe; and Mr. Topol imbuing his portrait of the disturbed Henry with an unsettling mixture of bourgeois academic rectitude and nervous, possibly sinister idiosyncrasy. Henry Vick rounds out the cast in the small role of the son expected for lunch in the opening scene.
The production’s crepuscular design befits the overriding tone of mysterious images emerging behind a rain-covered windowpane. The lighting by Tyler Micoleau discerns innumerable shades in drizzly grays. Fitz Patton’s smart sound design and Josh Schmidt’s moody music work together to heighten the sense of portent. And David Korins’s minimalist set, a circular moving platform set within another, on which a few key pieces of furniture are placed, effectively echoes the play’s swirling structure.
Mr. Cromer’s staging finds the sad poetry in the patterns as characters from past and present circle one another unknowingly or sometimes stand vigil before their younger selves, frozen in sorrow or regret. The gloom can become oppressive at times, but the shadowy mise-en-scène echoes the darkness through which the characters struggle to discern a way forward, or at least find a way to escape the past.
WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING
By Andrew Bovell; directed by David Cromer; sets by David Korins; costumes by Clint Ramos; lighting by Tyler Micoleau; sound by Fitz Patton; music by Josh Schmidt; stage manager, Richard A. Hodge; general manager, Adam Siegel; production manager, Jeff Hamlin. Presented by the Lincoln Center Theater, under the direction of André Bishop and Bernard Gersten; by arrangement with Jean Doumanian and Freddy DeMann. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center; (212) 239-6200. Through April 18. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
WITH: Kate Blumberg (Younger Elizabeth Law), Victoria Clark (Older Gabrielle York), Mary Beth Hurt (Older Elizabeth Law), Rod McLachlan (Joe Ryan), Susan Pourfar (Younger Gabrielle York), Will Rogers (Gabriel Law), Michael Siberry (Gabriel York), Richard Topol (Henry Law) and Henry Vick (Andrew Price).