Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
When the Rain Stops Falling
Also see Cameron's recent review of Michele Lee: Nobody Does It Like Me, The Music of Cy Coleman
The issue, ostensibly, is climate change. The play opens in Australia in the year 2039, in what may or may not be the earth's final days. A man named Gabriel York (Lindsay Smiling, adopting perhaps the most ridiculous stage accent I've ever heard) tells the audience that something miraculous and weird has happened recently: As he walked down the street in a torrential downpour, a fish fell from the sky. Because fish are thought to be extinct, this is a momentous development. And it occurs in the fortuitous moment before Gabriel is about to reunite over lunch with his long-estranged son.
Estrangement is a major theme in this play. Although Gabriel Yorkfor clarity's sake, I will use first and last names for all characters throughout this review to minimize confusion, as several characters share namesonly appears in the first and last scenes of this play, he is the ultimate product of the two families that dominate the proceedings. The play moves back in forth in time, from 1959 to 2039, and between London and different Australian cities, but one thing remains clear: Bovell's view of the family structure is one of fracture and pain. Yet why he tries to wrap what is ultimately a very conventional human drama in the guise of a message play about global warming is not entirely clear.
The main problem is that the play works even less as a human drama. It is hard to empathize with these characters, because they feel less like real people and more like plot devices. The most well-defined person onstage is Gabrielle York, Gabriel York's mother, who is played to dazzling effect as a young woman by Taysha Marie Canales. Gabrielle York's personal tragedies are matched only by her gimlet-eyed pragmatism; when she meets Gabriel Law (Brian Ratcliffe, who's very good, if slightly mannered), Gabriel York's father, she seduces him with thrilling matter-of-factness. A play centered around these two characters could have been kinetic, as Ratcliffe and Canales exude palpable chemistry. But that's not the story being told.
Gabrielle York is played in later scenes by Melanye Finister, who unfortunately seems unsure of her lines and her characterization. Gabriel Law's mother, Elizabeth Law, is also double-cast; Sarah Gliko plays her in scenes occurring in 1959 London, with Nancy Boykin portraying her thirty years later. Neither actress is entirely successful. Elizabeth Law in 1959 must grapple with a distressing secret about her husband (Keith Conallen, solidly pathetic) that eventually ends their marriage; Gliko defaults to stridency much too easily. By 1988, Elizabeth Law has become an alcoholic, which Boykin barely conveys through extreme understatement. It's obviously a choice, but it's the wrong one. You feel no sense of desertion when her son leaves her forever, and that's a shame. Gliko and Boykin also bear no physical resemblance to each other, which is jarring.
The cast also includes veteran actor Steven Rishard, who makes the most of an underwritten role, and Anthony Martinez-Briggs, who barely registers in his small but pivotal part. The shifts between the past, the present, and the future are never hard to follow, but they tend to make the story seem more fragmentary than it should be. Zizka's production is full of bells and whistles, with eye-catching rain effects and evocative visual cues (the sets and projections are by Matt Saunders). Yet this ornateness merely reinforces the overall emptiness of the play. Bovell should have made up his mind before he wrote: Did he want to tell a political story or a personal one? In aiming for both, he succeeds with neither.
When the Rain Stops Falling continues through Sunday, November 6, 2016, at the Wilma Theater (265 South Broad Street, Philadelphia). Tickets ($10-35) can be purchased online at www.wilmatheater.org or by calling 215-546-7824.