Andrew Bovell’s screenplay for the 2001 film “Lantana,” based on his play “Speaking in Tongues,” revealed the Australian writer’s facility for probing psychological complexity and intricately layered mystery. So the meticulous time-release storytelling of “When the Rain Stops Falling” should come as no surprise, yet this shattering new play creeps up on you. Its characters are weighted down by cancerous fragments of their past that metastasize across generations to resurface with unsettling inevitability. As intimate as it is apocalyptic, the epic drama is given searing lucidity in David Cromer’s insightful production for Lincoln Center Theater.
While the play’s swift path to production on prominent stages in Sydney, London and now New York is testament to its power, this is likely to be a divisive work. It’s easy to imagine some dismissing it as ponderous or confusing, overwritten or too literary. But others — and count this reviewer among them — will be struck by its melancholy, ruminative nature, its suspenseful structure and peculiar language, which is earthy and naturalistic but also intensely lyrical.
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Those contrasting qualities are reflected in the stark design. David Korins’ set evokes both water and rocks, with billowing tarps overhead that look like storm clouds about to burst, and a glassy double-axis revolve creaking beneath the actors’ feet. Its constant slow turning underscores the inexorable march of time as it exposes the murky ground on which the family’s history is built.
The brooding atmosphere extends into Tyler Micoleau’s lighting, and into a textured soundscape blending elemental noise, ominous knocking and music to darkly insinuating effect. Color is used sparingly, with red employed at key junctures to indicate the fleeting chance of a brighter future with more open communication.
As suggested by the title, rain figures throughout, both in unrelenting inclement weather and in frequent references to deluges and drowning, with natural cataclysms echoing the emotional ones. The opening ballet has all the characters rushing back and forth, clutching their umbrellas as the downpour crescendos and a large fish drops out of the sky.
The time is 2039, and Gabriel York (Michael Siberry) has had an unexpected phone call from the son he abandoned 20 years earlier. Siberry’s penetrating delivery of the opening monologue kicks the play off on a plangent note, revealing a befuddled geezer with neither material comforts nor self-esteem, preparing to be confronted by his failings as a father and a man. Before that fish — an almost extinct delicacy in this ravaged world — is served for lunch the next day, the secrets of four generations will come to light.
The narrative is a piece-by-piece puzzle spanning from 1959 into the future, in London and Australia. Characters sit down to the same table to eat the same fish soup prepared on the same stove as their relationships and troubled histories slowly become clear.
Bovell encompasses Australia’s convict history in his depiction of the enduring scars of past crimes, as well as the harshness and solitude of the country’s landscape in such settings as desert hub Alice Springs, monolithic Ayers Rock, or the Coorong, a watery wilderness on the southern coast. “It’s the place,” says Gabrielle (Susan Pourfar) by way of explaining her parents’ tragic deaths. “Things like that happen here.”
The sense of place is no less acute in Thatcher’s England, and in London 30 years earlier, where Elizabeth Law (Kate Blumberg) ponders passion, capitalism and “man’s insatiable hunger for the new” via Diderot’s essay, “Regrets on Parting With My Old Dressing Gown.” That seemingly whimsical, highfalutin reference will recur late in the play, as Bovell masterfully ties all the strands together on a note of unexpected tenderness, atonement and optimism.
At other times Bovell’s lofty intellectual airs get in his way; he leans too heavily, for instance, on the sinister metaphor of the planet Saturn and its mythological namesake, who devoured his children.
Cromer adds another impressive page here to a diverse body of New York work that includes “Orson’s Shadow,” “Adding Machine,” the still-running “Our Town” revival and the unjustly short-lived “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” The Chicago-based director’s astute ability to create a fluid physical production entirely in sync with Bovell’s challenging text is matched by his skill at coaxing enigmatic performances from a superb ensemble.
Blumberg’s clipped pragmatism is quietly heartbreaking as the fissures in her marriage widen, while Mary Beth Hurt’s toughened exterior and cautious remoteness as the same character in her later years can’t mask either her love or her wounds. Richard Topol also gets under the skin as Elizabeth’s husband Henry, a man devastated by his crippling weakness yet powerless to deny it. And Victoria Clark gives a wrenching portrayal of an unhinged woman who years later takes a stab at happiness with the London couple’s son. It’s hard to breathe while watching her take her leave from Rod McLachlan’s steadfast but unloved fallback companion, Joe.
Abandonment and disillusionment carry a bitter sting, and cruelty is traced to both parents and children. Rain falls but washes nothing away; new coats of paint are applied to walls, but the stain remains; and the same obsessive thoughts come back to plague each new generation. The distinct lines between fathers and sons, mothers and sons, husbands and wives — all are fraught with difficulty, and the past is a noose around their necks. Bovell’s play is weighty stuff, a work of great sorrow and beauty.