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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
A Hatful of Rain
By Elyse Sommer
Unfortunately, despite a distinguished history, Michael V. Gazzo's A Hatful of Rain turns out to be a bad choice with which to conclude the company's Main Stage season. It had a 399-performance run on Broadway in 1955, a year when it fit into a season in which other realistic kitchen sink dramas like Inherit the Wind and The Diary of Anne Frank drew audiences. The stellar cast featured Ben Gazarra as the junky Johnny Pope and Shelley Winters as his wife Celia. Anthony Franciosca received a Tony nomination as his brother Polo.
The play also made news because the actors at New York's famous Actors Studio helped to create the scenes. It was made into a movie in 1957, this time with Don Murray and Eva Marie Saint, but with Franciosca reprising his stage role. Coming as it did at a time when Hollywood first okayed stories about substance abuse, The Man With the Golden Arm and Hatful of Rain were viewed as ground breakers for their depiction of heroin addiction.
Though the ban on a once forbidden subject was lifted in time for the movie version, dialogue was still subject to taboos. Thus the gangster-addicts who provide the play's most dramatic moments come across as totally unreal without the kind of language to which we've come to expect, especially in these kind of situations.
The play is essentially a dysfunctional family drama with a melodramatic, violent undertow. The main characters are a father who sent his children to an orphanage, favored one son over another, and now meddles in their lives without a clue about the grim undercurrents. The younger brother knows what's going on and tries to help his junkie sibling. He also happens to be passionately in love with his pregnant sister-in-law. The wife, who brings things to their inevitable but not especially satisfying conclusion, knows something is wrong but suspects another woman.
Of course, there's always an exciting new way to bring even a much done dysfunctional family story to new life and to make a melodramatic subplot put you on the edge of your seat. Not to mention, riveting performances.
I never saw Guzzo's play on stage or screen but very much liked the actors in both. The same is true for the actors playing the main characters in Stockbridge so I went to the opening ready to add this revival to my memory book of catch-ups with missed theatrical rarities. But though post-Korean wars continue to seed tragic stories of veterans hooked on drugs, Johnny Pope's story comes up short in terms of newly relevant timeliness. And neither does director Greg Naughton's interpretation encourage the actors to give their characters the soul-stirring intensity that was at the heart of the play's original success.
Greg Keller is more fiery as the younger brother who has taken on the hopeless burden of trying to help Johnny kick his habit and pay the thugs supplying him with heroin. But there's just so much he, or the other actors can do to keep the melodrama of the bad guys lurking at the periphery of the kitchen table drama from creaking to its predictable and not especially satisfying conclusion.
The best things about this production are Hugh Landwehr's authentically detailed unit set and David Murin's equally period perfect costumes. But then I thought about some revivals of realistic classics from another era; for example, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge that worked their magic in a new way with a set that looked nothing like kitchen-sink original settings. This set me to wondering if perhaps trying for something less focused on being true to what most people in the audience never saw or don't remember might not have worked better.
Ultimately, the big problem is that this is a play of interest mainly to theater professionals like actor-director Naughton and people who want another look at a play they remember less for its plot than its explosive performances. What about Berkshire theater goers who are unfamiliar with the play They's certainly intelligent and not fixated on light summer stock entertainment, as evident from past successes with serious dramas. Still, with headlines and blogs abuzz with the fallout from longer-than-ever foreign conflicts this is perhaps too heavy and heavy-handed a way to end a summer holiday.