STOCKBRIDGE — There are some plays about social issues that stay sharp for years, speaking across the decades with their power intact. “A Hatful of Rain” is not one of them.
It has seldom been revived since its 1955 premiere, and for good reason. The play’s edge has been softened, retroactively, by several decades’ worth of theater, film, television, and literature that explores similar territory but with more realism and depth.
A production with a firm point of view just might find something fresh here still. Yet the blandly earnest one now onstage at Berkshire Theatre Group feels far beyond its expiration date.
Written by the late Michael V. Gazzo, an actor and sometime playwright/screenwriter, the play depicts a Korean War veteran who brought a morphine addiction back home after a long recuperation from his wartime injuries. With scandals now afoot about the health care provided to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a growing epidemic of opioid addiction, just maybe there is enough stuff in here for an enterprising director to tease out a biting contemporary statement.
Gazzo stuffed the play with writerly conceits; assorted themes are gestured at but not developed. One is that protagonist, Johnny Pope, was let down by the system he believed in, from a superior officer who apparently abandoned him, leaving him to be captured (and tortured) during the war, to a doctor who shot him full of morphine and then left him to become an addict. (The oddly regressive ending, in which legal and familial power structures are reasserted, also puts the play out of step with what was to come in American society.)
The depiction of drug culture may have been a topical breakthrough in 1955 but seems out of touch today. Johnny’s twice-a-day habit makes minimal impact on his appearance or behavior; he needs a fix but refuses even to pawn an electric juicer to get money for more. Fortunately, his dealer helpfully supplies doses on credit for weeks at a time.
When the play opens in the cramped Lower East Side apartment where Johnny lives with wife Celia and brother Polo — in the midst of what is supposed to be an awkward visit from the brothers’ father — everybody banters amiably, and we wonder if Donna Reed is about to step through the door. Unlike, for instance, “Far From Heaven” — either the Todd Haynes film or the musical based on it, first seen at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2012 and included in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s upcoming season — this production doesn’t establish a hollow veneer of 1950s complacency only to subvert it.
Instead, director Greg Naughton has everybody play it straight, taking each moment at face value. Megan Ketch’s
hyperliteral rendering of Celia is illustrative. Her performance, like the production itself, desperately needs an injection of subtext, some point of view, some decisions by the actor or director that could potentially craft a coherent character from amid the stiff melodrama Gazzo leaves on the page.
Tommy Schrider, as Johnny, spends too much time speaking in a breathless, isn’t-this-dramatic cadence. As Father, Stephen Mendillo had a rough opening night on Saturday, straining to remember some lines and delivering most in a rushed monotone.
Greg Keller’s scene-stealing performance as Polo is the best thing here. (Keller’s interactions with Ketch’s Celia are her strongest moments.) His is the only role among the family quartet that feels truly lived in. Polo is deeply conflicted about his brother, sopping up most of the intrafamily ridicule while keeping Johnny’s secret. When he finally urges Johnny to come clean, it’s a betrayal and romantic power play as much as a gesture of fraternal love, and you can read this pained ambivalence in Keller’s face and hear it in his voice.
Playing the drug dealer’s sidekick, Apples, Chris Bannow is wholly convincing as a wayward teen who just may have a nagging notion he’s making some poor life choices.
Things finally click in one late scene, as Polo and Celia make nervous conversation with Father. Celia’s face blanches while she silently works out the implications of news she’s just heard. It’s a glimpse of a richer production that might have been.
Kudos to Berkshire Theatre Group for programming a show about substance abuse. Ultimately, this one relies for its impact on shocking subject matter that isn’t shocking anymore. Naughton has assembled a faithful recitation of Gazzo’s play. But for a production of this work in 2014, face value doesn’t go deep enough.
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