The air is heavy with humidity and mosquitoes, passions are roiling and the nastiest of past indiscretions are bubbling not so far under the surface of every seemingly "proper" American guest at this Western Samoan hotel. The pregnant proprietress utters a chant and flings a few handfuls of flower petals from the roof to persuade the gods to watch over her establishment. It's an exercise in futility. Torrential rains are coming, and so is Miss Sadie Thompson.
That name should ring a bell, or — more appropriately — an alarm. A good-time, acid-tongued working girl and a survivor with more resiliency than a post-apocalypse cockroach, Sadie Thompson sprang to life in a Somerset Maugham short story, and has been played in film adaptations by the likes of Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, and Gloria Swanson. In Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson's Rain, she is expertly played by Eden Espinosa, on whose shoulders sits Sadie's tragic toughness. Espinosa's performance is the compelling centerpiece of Rain's world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre, but she has plenty of company.
Confining the action to a single place and limiting the number of characters to a small handful of hotel guests who come across Sadie's orbit, book writer Pearson keeps the action tight and lean, simultaneously allowing several equally interesting tales to unfold. LaChiusa (Pearson's collaborator on Giant) breaks out an amalgam of musical stylings, from island chants to tribal drums to sweaty blues. Director Barry Edelstein and a first-rate company of nine actors take care of the rest. Edelstein who is making his musical directorial debut, is self-assured and never dull with his choices.
The year is 1924, and the Pago Pago hotel, operated by Jo (played by Jeremy Davis) and his wife, Noi Noi (Marie-France Arcilla), is more a boarding house than a luxury accommodation. Louisa MacPhail (Betsy Morgan) will try anything to snap her husband, Dr. Alec McPhail (Tally Sessions), out of his gloom. The Reverend Alfred Davidson (Jared Zirilli) and his wife, Anna (Elizabeth A. Davis), are a veritable tag team of piety and salvation, targeting every islander they can possibly bring to Jesus. His motives notwithstanding, however, Reverend Alfred is a no-nonsense bully where people's souls are concerned. Since a quarantine inspection has delayed the passage of the latest ship, and the heavy rains have trapped the entire company at the hotel.
The arrival of Sadie Thompson with her revealing silks and vampy remarks ensure that the Davidsons have met their Waterloo. "Have you got a Bible?" the Reverend asks. "I lost it yesterday," Sadie replies. The water may be cascading down outside, but Sadie launches into a bluesy number called "Sunshine" that feels like LaChiusa's ode to the Gershwins. As the song unfolds, Sadie saunters from room to room, and Mark Wendland's three-story dollhouse of a set starts to rotate — synching expertly with Russell H. Champa's lighting and Ken Travis' sound design to create some technical magic.
Quite naturally, all of the boys are drawn to Sadie who has a gramophone brought to her room and starts partying with the sailors (played by Rusty Ross and Mike Sears) who delivered it. An enraged Davidson gets violent and then takes extra measures to have Sadie shipped back to San Francisco. Dr. MacPhail tries to intercede, but with little success. A showdown is coming that will test the faith and resiliency of Sadie, the Reverend and Mrs. Davidson.
The complicated MacPhail marriage occupies about as much stage time as the battle over Sadie Thompson's soul and the complexity of Sessions' and Morgan's performances makes it so that we never mind the diversion. Goo-hearted though he is, the doctor is an alcoholic who is still reeling from the trauma of his experiences in the war, and his wife is drowning in loneliness. When Louisa catches the landlords getting frisky, she asks Noi Noi for advice, which the latter provides via the playful song, "The English Lesson." "It's sex," Noi Noi explains, as though the practice were that simple. Which, for Noi Noi and her besotted husband, it is.
The dark and brooding Zirilli delivers a younger, more dangerous Reverend Davidson than can be seen in previous adaptations. His scenes with Espinosa are shot through with a mixture of brutality and sexual tension. Sadie may indeed be "playing" the missionary or she might simply be justifiably afraid. The show's climax gives Davis' Anna a splendid breakdown.
After her lengthy stints in Rent and Wicked, Espinosa gets her first crack at a legitimate grown-up role in Rain, and she brings it home. With her smoky alto and defiant dishabille (courtesy of costumer Katherine Roth), Espinosa uses solos like "Thirteen Dollars," "Alone," and the above-mentioned "Sunshine" to give us a peek into Sadie's complicated soul. Damaged though the lady may still be, we like what we see, and when Sadie pulls a red dress out of her satchel and looks toward the next horizon, we know she'll bring her brand of sunshine to wherever the next ship carries her.