Volunteering as an usher, I spent the past two evenings seeing a local production of A Steady Rain. Chicago-based playwright Keith Huff’s 2006 drama is a powerful and thought-provoking evening in the theater and this production presents it with great subtlety. I liked the production more than the play itself but enjoyed them both.
Joey and Denny are Chicago cops; partners as uniformed patrol officers. They’re life-long friends; as they put it; “best friends since kinnygarten”. They have each other’s backs. Both aspire to become detectives; “Starsky & Hutch”, but have been unsuccessful because of, they believe, the Department’s unwritten affirmative action policy. That may or may not be true. We learn there are a number of factors that might limit their career advancement. And it doesn’t help that Joey and Denny have a history of racial and ethnic insensitivity. The case is made that these issues have more to do with their upbringing and their experiences policing the streets of Chicago than any deeply held racism. Whatever the cause, Joey has accepted the challenge to address this issue while Denny remains unabashedly defiant in his intolerance.
Joey is single, lives alone in a one-room apartment and is a recovering alcoholic. He is virtually a member of Denny’s family but he has a secret he keeps from his partner.
Denny is a family man. He has a wife and children and a house with all the trappings of aspirational middle-class consumerism. Denny is also more ethically flexible. This allows him to rationalize his marital infidelities and reconcile his notion of what it means to be a good cop with shaking down prostitutes for protection money.
Having grown up together and shared their professional and personal lives, the two men have much in common. Notably for the action of this play, they share a crushing sense of guilt for past choices and a need to do something in the face of the torrent of tragedy that confronts them as the play develops. As the consequences of Denny’s actions spiral out of control, they are forced to make even tougher and more guilt-provoking choices to prevent the family they share from being swept away in the deluge.
This is not a happy tale.
A Steady Rain had successful, award-winning, runs in two Chicago theaters in 2007 & 2008 before opening for a limited run in New York in 2009. The Broadway production starred Hugh Jackman as Denny and Daniel Craig, in his Broadway debut, as Joey. Overlooked for awards, the show was, nonetheless, well received by critics. It set box office records for a non-musical though I imagine even the playwright would acknowledge that the box office success may have been based as much on the ‘James Bond meets Wolverine’ casting as the material.
The playwright has written an adaptation for the screen and Steven Spielberg has reportedly expressed interest in directing the film. I often find it hard to imagine how a play I’ve seen would be presented on the screen. That is not the case here. I think it has the potential to be even more powerful on the screen.
The play has many strengths. The language is strong and gritty. The two characters are complex and richly detailed and the playwright has given the actors everything they need to create realistic three-dimensional human beings the audience comes to care about. There are a number of familiar plot elements; good cop/bad cop; fidelity and betrayal; the toll exacted on decent men by the harsh realities of the mean streets; but the play does not feel derivative.
There are things about the play that trouble me. In the theater there is often an imaginary barrier between the characters and the audience; the “fourth wall”. This conceit allows the characters on stage to ignore the presence of the audience while still allowing the audience to see into the world of the play. In A Steady Rain I can’t decide whether the playwright has moved the ‘fourth wall’ to the back of the theater and incorporated the audience into the play or abandoned the ‘fourth wall’ completely. My favorite scenes are those when the two actors interact only with each other. For most of the play, however, the characters talk directly to the audience relaying past events though a series of monologues and duologues. These subtly reveal the truth as we observe the differences between what Joey and Denny tell us and what they seek to spin or hide. It is effective storytelling. It is also slightly problematic for me.
While theater certainly should tell a story, the arts of theater and storytelling are different. Having the character describe past events creates a space. It is not necessary for the audience to ‘suspend disbelief’. We are not witnessing events. We are being told about them by someone who witnessed or experienced them. By acknowledging the presence of the audience, the playwright has defined its experience of the events described as ‘third-person’. There are times, especially for Joey, when the monologues nearly morph into soliloquy but these are rare. For his part, Denny postures for the observers. He wants to us like him and agree with him, even if that means altering the facts. In the end, I found the events that shaped these characters’ lives to be less emotionally affecting than they might have been. What we see first-hand is the effect those events had on the storytellers.
Another issue I found troubling was the sheer volume of tragedy described. At the risk of belaboring the precipitation metaphor, it starts to rain as events begin to unfold in Act I. By the end of Act II the cascading flood of horror would have prompted Noah to issue the call to abandon ship. In his New York Times review of A Steady Rain, Ben Brantley noted;
“If Mr. Huff has not managed to reweave this premise [childhood friends find themselves on opposite sides of the law and in love with the same woman] with any surprising threads, he has packed it with enough lurid incident to fill a season of Law & Order.”
When does more killing become overkill? One of the critical plot points is based on an actual event that occurred involving Jeffrey Dahmer. While not mentioning Dahmer by name, the play makes no attempt to veil the incident described. Moving the event from Milwaukee to Chicago is not an unacceptable use of dramatic license. What is troubling to me is that, with all that follows, the story of a canabal pedophile seems merely anecdotal.
There are no surprises nor dramatic revelations in the end. By the time the climax arrives it is inevitable. You see it coming. The stream only flows one way. And you know it’s going to be bad but you can’t look away. There is no happy ending. There is redemption, of a kind…. and a legacy of constant but bearable guilt.
A Steady Rain is a good play, perhaps even a very good play. It could be an outstanding film. I hope it gets made. And I hope I get the chance to see it.