At one point in "When the Rain Stops Falling," the deeply moving Australian play by Andrew Bovell now in a richly textured and searingly honest production from director John Gawlik at the Circle Theatre in Oak Park, a battered and melancholy young woman remarks on the cruelty of parents. At another juncture in this oft-devastating play, a pained older woman is moved to observe that there's nothing crueler than a child.
Both, I suppose, can be true. Both comments, in this play, are made by the same character at different points in her life. But every parent is a child first. One kind of cruelty invariably begets the other.
Bovell's profoundly intelligent and chronologically scrambled drama starts in a crisis-filled 2039 in remote Alice Springs, Australia and then ricochets across time and place, charting the travails of several generations of two troubled families. But although it takes a while to dig them out, its roots are in London during what you might call the early "Mad Men" era.
A woman, a mother, makes a terrible discovery about the acts of her seemingly charming husband, a father. She kicks him out of their home for good, vows never to speak of him to her child again, and he heads for Australia, like one of the criminals whom the British used to ship off Down Under, a geo-political point that American audiences might miss but was surely not lost on some Australians, who perhaps wonder more than most about the sins of their great-grandfathers.
But this 1959 Englishwoman's geographic banishment of this man, history and this play will show, is largely symbolic, anyway. He cannot be sent away from heart and head. The damage to the family has already been done, and it will take several generations for it to recover, if it ever may be said to have recovered at all. And who's to say a man can only hurt one family?
It's in the exploration of these indisputable life truths—the way a rotten familial apple festers across time, how refusing to tell your child about one of their parents only means they crave their presence more, how refusing to talk to a family member actually hurts their children more than the apparent victim of one's cold shoulder—that this 2008 drama packs its most powerful wallop. It doesn't lurch into the future to show us how much the world has changed—although Bovell does suggest that domestic dysfunction writ large can threaten the planet—but rather to point out all the ways it does not change at all, technology being overrated and good men being hard to find.
In other words, he expands the usual canvas in a truly thrilling way by letting us see into the future. I didn't see one (no doubt obvious to others) plot twist coming at all and thus it hit me with as big a thwack as the fish that falls out of the Aussie sky, right in the first scene. I believe I made some kind of loud gurgling noise, as if something had hit me between the eyes.
"When the Rain Stops Falling" played at New York's Lincoln Center in 2010, in a production directed by David Cromer, a production I did not see. The general critical view in New York was that this was a wise but chilly affair that was tough to follow. There's no denying the seriousness of the themes—this show reminds me, in all the right ways, of both "Festen," seen at Steep Theatre, and "The Big Meal," seen at American Theater Company. And it's true that its thematic mysteries take some time to unravel and unlock. But while I can't speak for what went on at the Lincoln Center, the experience in Oak Park is not one of alienation or confusion. On the contrary, the small, rapt, deeply involved audience on Saturday night leaned into the show hungrily, seeking its center. And, glancing around as I often do, I could see several people wiping their eyes.
That's a tribute to Gawlik's no-nonsense, superbly cast and completely unpretentious staging—the simple sepia-toned visuals created by Bob Knuth and Kevin Bellie are perfectly nuanced--and to a fleet of formidably honest performances from a strikingly gruff and unstinting cast, made up mostly of older Chicago actors clearly uninterested in cheap moves or other such worthless nonsense, and profoundly connected to the depth of this material.
Luke Daigle, who plays the young, fatherless man whose fateful journey to Australia is at the core of the play, is sufficiently empathetic that we travel alongside him. This character's mother is played by two actors of different ages, Katherine Keberlein and Mary Redmon. They both are outstanding, with Redmon offering a vivid picture of an aging Englishwoman unable to process past pain, even if it is the only way to stop it all happening again to her son.
There's another character, a lively young Australian sensualist turned, by the perils of life, into a sadly wise and caustic soul, that needs two actors to tell her story. And both Catherine Price-Griffin and Anita Hoffman do so with distinction, a descriptive applicable to the entire ensemble here.
"When the Rain Stops Falling" involves what might seem to some like coincidences. But as I drove home at the weekend—and this show is worth anyone's drive—they seemed to float there in the road and then fall into place, like a finished jigsaw puzzle hovering over the Eisenhower Expressway, where all kinds of things happen but fish have yet to fall. Never say never.
When: Through June 17
Where: Circle Theatre, 1010 W. Madison St., Oak Park
Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.