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It's bleak but effective, grim but exhilarating. When the Rain Stops Falling, by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell, is certainly never formulaic, and the Circle Theatre production is the Chicago premiere.
The complex but intricately layered play, sharply directed by John Gawlik, is a terrific ensemble showcase; there are no obvious "leads." The complicated time-shifting structure involves a series of intertwined and overlapping episodes that throw you out of your comfort zone.
The play jumps around from London to Australia as it portrays four generations connected by love and sorrow. There's a lot of bad weather and bad luck. But even though the show is challenging, it's not a downer.
Many of the characters are played by two actors representing their younger and older selves.
It's hard to provide a brief summary without blowing the secrets of the intelligent but convoluted plot. Fathers duck out and mothers withdraw into themselves.
We begin at the end, sort of. When the play opens in the future in 2039, a large dead ocean-dwelling fish falls from the sky into the Australian desert. Gabriel York (Ron Quade) is expecting his grown son (Nicholas Roy Caesar) whom he has not seen in years to come for lunch. From then on, we bounce around, back and forth, starting with a flashback to mid-20th-century London.
It's a lot to keep up with. While we're juggling family members from four generations, the plot oscillates between four different periods. Half the characters are called Gabriel. The same characters are played by different actors in different eras.
Little of the plot clicks or falls into place until nearly halfway through. It's like someone has dumped a big jigsaw puzzle out in front of you. It takes concentration to get all the pieces together. But it's worth the effort.
Mary Redmon is a prematurely aged alcoholic who's withheld her love from her adult son, Gabriel, played by Luke Daigle. Painful secrets have shaped this tough-minded woman's life. Gabriel's father abruptly disappeared when he was a small boy. Though true communication between parents and their offspring seems impossible, Gabriel heads off to Australia to find out what he can about his mysterious, long-gone dad.
Luke Renn portrays a bookish British businessman, the slightly creepy run-away father, in the 1960s scenes. His wife as a young woman is played by Katherine Keberlein.
When he arrives in remote Australia, Gabriel is smitten by a roadhouse waitress named Gabrielle, played by Catherine Price-Griffin.
Older Gabrielle, tormented and ghostly, is played by Anita Hoffman. She's haunted by regret as her dementia seems to be accelerating. Her long-suffering but still devoted farmer husband is Noah Sullivan.
The show runs non-stop for just under two hours. An intermission definitely would have disrupted the tensions. But a pause might have helped, allowing people to sort out the people and events a bit. There's an actual family tree printed in the program. But who can read in the dark?
Despite the intensity of the performances, because we are constantly jumping around in terms of the broken chronology, perhaps the effect of our putting the puzzle together distances us and decreases our emotional attachment. I didn't feel that deeply connected to or touched by these often very tragic characters.
At one point early on, all of the characters, past and future, are seated at a long table facing forward like a biblical tableau. It's a simultaneously beautiful and chilling image.
The tall set by Bob Knuth becomes a variety of locales via striking projections designed by Kevin Bellie.
The lovely lighting is designed by Gary C. Echelmeyer. Patti Roeder created the costumes, which often help us identify where we are in terms of the time travel. Peter Storms' music and sound design is particularly effective. Karen Berger is the stage manager.
The Australian accents sound so authentic at times that some of the clarity of the speeches gets lost.
Nonetheless, it is indeed a treat to experience this Australian play. We so often pull all our cultural awareness from movies instead. There's clearly a lot more to drama from "down under" than Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Crocodile Dundee.
If you're looking for a light evening of diversion, this may not be the show for you. But it's a solid production that gives the gift of good theater: The show stayed with me and I've been thinking about it ever since the cast took their bows.