As we suffer through a political campaign in which demagogic politicians wax nostalgicabout the “family values” of decades past, it is particularly timely to revive a play that shows how much deceit, miscommunication and emotional abuse went on within the American family, even during the idealized 1950s.
Michael Gazzo’s 1956 drama “A Hatful of Rain” does just that with a satisfying combination of solid craftsmanship and raw honesty. It’s a play that has withstood the test of time very well, and it will no doubt survive the disappointingly uneven production currently on stage at the Gnu Theatre.
This dramatically concise, psychologically insightful piece concerns a two-day period in which the myths one family have been living are forever shattered. The key figures are Johnny, a troubled Korean War veteran who is hooked on morphine; his wife, Celia, who understands something is terribly wrong with her husband but doesn’t know what; his brother Polo, who has fallen in love with Celia; and the boys’ father, John Sr., a widower who abandoned his sons, physically and emotionally, when they were young.
As the play begins, Dad has just flown to New York to see his sons and borrow some long-promised money from Polo–money that has gone to support Johnny’s drug habit. Unable to accept Polo’s vague explanation that the money is gone, he angrily confronts each of his sons until the truth comes out into the open.
Gazzo’s writing has a nice sense of urgency, and the play’s key moments — such as the one when Johnny once again hears the painful sound of his father’s come-here-boy whistle–are genuinely shattering. He has a good instinctive feel for the workings of what today’s psychologists call “family systems.” When one relationship in this household changes, all the others are profoundly affected.
With its well-written characters who are forced to face their demons, “A Hatful of Rain” is a feast for actors, but too many members of the Gnu cast only nibble at its edges. Co-director Jeff Seymour emphasizes Johnny’s emotional disconnection with those around him–a logical choice which, unfortunately, also disconnects the character from the audience.
Still more problematic is Carrie Dolce as Celia. She can take an emotion-charged line such as, “Last night, I almost threw myself into your brother’s arms” and read it as if she were asking Johnny whether he wanted fries with his burger.
But Don Nardini is a superb Polo. From his entrance (when he literally crawls onto the stage on his knees, chortling with drunken laughter), he is the embodiment of the life force bursting its way into this emotionally dead household.
Nardini’s Polo is supremely compassionate–it’s easy to believe that he’d give Johnny the money to support his habit in a misguided gesture of love–but the actor also brings an appropriate measure of desperation to the character. We sense how trapped Polo feels, and that provides the character with an aura of danger. Seymour and Dolce, in contrast, seem oddly benign.
While some of the blocking is awkward, it is appropriate that the characters have many conversations with one another while sitting or standing in adjacent rooms. That nicely symbolizes the gulf between them, and makes the concluding tableau that much more moving.
Seymour contributes another of his highly detailed, period-perfect sets.