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Theater & Dance
What you need to know for 01/22/2017

Review: '50s play tackles drug addiction

Review: '50s play tackles drug addiction

Review: “A Hatful of Rain,” by Michael V. Gazzo, is included in John Gassner’s “Best American Plays

“A Hatful of Rain,” by Michael V. Gazzo, is included in John Gassner’s “Best American Plays 1951-1957,” alongside such enduring masterworks as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “The Crucible.” If you want to see what the enthusiasm was about in 1955, you can catch a sturdy production of it by the Berkshire Theater Group.

’A Hatful of Rain’

WHERE: Berkshire Theatre Group, Fitzpatrick Main Stage, Stockbridge, Mass.

WHEN: Through Aug. 30

HOW MUCH: $62-$42

MORE INFO: (413) 298-5536

Director Greg Naughton’s comments in the press packet are helpful in knowing why he chose to mount this neglected script: “[The play] is best known ... as a scene-study staple for acting students.” Indeed, Gazzo worked with students at the Actors Studio to shape his play through improvisation, and there are certainly many meaty roles. Naughton also notes that “this play about a PTSD case ... who returns home addicted to heroin became (unfortunately) very timely again.”

Let’s start with what’s interesting. The father-son relationships in this play, while in the shadow of those in Miller’s “All My Sons” and “Death of a Salesman,” still have a certain gravitas to them. Father (Stephen Mendilo) is up from Palm Beach to visit his sons, favorite Johnny (Tommy Schrider) and also-ran Polo (Greg Keller). Johnny and his pregnant wife, Celia (Megan Ketch), live simply in a Lower East Side apartment, where they’re putting up Polo for a while. Father’s arrival reopens old wounds, explored in explosive encounters throughout. Recriminations fly.

Also interesting is the novelty of the “frank and raw depiction of drug addiction,” as Naughton puts it. Clearly, audiences in 1955 were intrigued and moved by the way Johnny tries to carry on, secretly, with his daily life, all the while at the mercy of the drug and its pushers. For this reason — as well references to, and images of, post-war life in America — the play is a historical snapshot.

Dramatically, however, the script has weaknesses. Despite Ketch’s best efforts, Celia’s teary vacillations become wearing. Also, some speech include back story that interrupts the flow of the action, like the one Father makes in the middle of duking it out with Polo. And the long scene with the drug dealers is slow, and, frankly, unnecessary. Notwithstanding a few amusing and even frightening moments, thanks to the manic work of Chris Bannow as Apples, the episode seems more an explanation to an uninformed 1950s audience about the effects of drugs than it is a relevant to the plot. We already know how malevolent these thugs are. Finally, the ending, while hopeful, seems awkward.

Under Naughton’s direction, the cast ably reveals the passions that threaten to undo the family one way or another. Schrider and Keller make us believe in Polo and Johnny’s brotherly regard. With a look or tentative gesture, Ketch and Keller reveal the incipient feelings of a love that, in this household, dare not speak its name. And Mendilo’s Father (despite a few moments of uncertainty with lines) credibly makes us cringe as he made his sons do when they were children.

The single set, by Hugh Landwehr, is extraordinary in its function and artfulness: Naughton’s staging thoroughly exploits the space, and the eye is rewarded wherever it wanders. The costumes and the sound design are period perfect.

Maybe “period” is the operative word here, one that will help you navigate your way through unsatisfying stretches and appreciate what works.

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