Abandoned children and neglectful parents abound in Andrew Bovell’s poetic and disturbing new drama, When the Rain Stops Falling, now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. The complex yet always engrossing play spans 80 years as it looks at the ties that both bind and unravel a family across four generations.
The work is set in both England and Australia, and skips backwards and forwards in time. It starts in the year 2039, as Gabriel York (Michael Siberry) prepares to meet with his adult son Andrew (Henry Vick), whom he abandoned many years earlier when Andrew was still a boy.
As the scenes unfold, we’re also introduced to Henry Law (Richard Topol) and his wife Elizabeth (Kate Blumberg) in 1956; their son Gabriel Law (Will Rogers), along with an older version of Elizabeth (Mary Beth Hurt) in 1988; and Gabrielle York as both a young woman (Susan Pourfar), and an older version of the same woman (Victoria Clark), who is somewhat unhappily married to the frustrated, yet loving Joe Ryan (Rod McLachlan).
Some of the connections between the characters are obvious from the start, while others become clearer as the play goes on. The bulk of the action centers on Gabriel Law’s quest to uncover the reason why his father left his family when Gabriel was only seven years old. Elizabeth knows the answers, but she’s keeping her estranged husband’s secrets. A series of postcards leads Gabriel to Australia, where he meets and falls in love with Gabrielle. The young couple’s pasts and presents quite literally collide, leading to a future embodied by Gabriel York and Andrew in which there may or may not be the possibility for reconciliation and healing.
The play’s structure may confuse some audience members, although there is a handy family tree printed in the program that can help to clarify certain details. However, the parceling out of information a little at a time is both intentional and effective, as the work is like an intricate puzzle that reveals its final form as each piece slides into place. Many of the characters either never discover the answers to the questions that have shaped their lives, or find out buried secrets at a terrible cost. Throughout the play, Bovell weaves in symbolic imagery and the repetition of key phrases. This gives a surreal feel to the enterprise, without lessening its emotional impact.
The production, smartly directed by David Cromer, benefits from a superb ensemble cast. Hurt delivers a sublime performance as an alcoholic and embittered old woman who withholds both love and information from her son. Rogers, for his part, imbues Gabriel with a combination of melancholy and hope that makes it impossible not to root for him, and also dread what will become of him if he ever does discover his father’s secrets. Other standout performances include Siberry, whose opening monologue sets the right tone for everything that follows, and Clark, who heartbreakingly portrays Gabrielle’s mental decline.
On the design front, the usually reliable David Korins has hung large and unattractive plastic tarps from the ceiling, giving the production a displeasingly shoddy look. Korins is more successful with his ground-level design, which primarily makes use of two rotating circular platforms. Cromer frequently employs these to smooth transitions or to vary the vantage points of audience members, who are seated in a three-quarter thrust configuration. In particular, there are a few wonderful moments in which one of the platforms does a slow revolve, with the characters onstage seemingly unaware of how the ground is shifting beneath them.