A Hatful of Rain,by Michael V. Gazzo. Directed by Greg Naughton. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"You have to be responsible to what you love."
Tommy Schrider and Greg Keller; photo: Christina Riley
"A Hatful of Rain" played for 399 performance after it opened on Broadway in October, 1955. It became a movie for 20th Century Fox in 1957. It's performers were nominated for awards and one of them, Anthony Franciosa, repeated his original role of Polo Pope on the screen and never looked back to Broadway although Ben Gazzarra (Johnny Pope) and Shelly Winters (Celia Pope) made the return trip many times. In a season where realism paid off on the great white way where other hits of the year included "Bus Stop," "Inherit the Wind," and "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Hatful of Rain" was unique. While the other three dealt with a combination of obsession and dilemma, "...Rain" added three things to the picture: drug addiction, marital crisis and the passion of rage. This play defined the mid-twentieth century man and all that created contemporary chaos in the returning Koren War veteran. It would define this sort of play for the rest of the coming fifty years.
It is a mostly forgotten play today. Scenes from it are used in acting schools, I have been told, to drive actors to an understanding of rage and passion and the fuse that ignites those two elements. The play's reputation is actually based less on its plot than on the volatility of its players and their ability to strike out with sudden passions. Gazzara (who had just played Brick in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), and Franciosa became known for this in film and theater and Shelly Winters soon moved from the pouty roles to the pert ones. Their Broadway replacements also brought this known capability into play: Steve McQueen as Johnny, Harry Guardino as Polo and Vivian Blaine as Celia. I was just ten years old when I saw the original cast in the play and I have never forgotten the play, so vivid were the characters on stage.
In the current presentation that quality of rage, of passion, of the instant flair and the frayed nerves is missing for most of the evening. For most of the hour and twenty-two minute first act there is a soft, almost polite, dance going on within the confines of Hugh Landwehr's perfect set. The four principal actors move and behave like puppets instead of people. Father, played by Stephen Mendillo (or Mendilo - there is an inconsistency in the materials available), is particularly stilted, always seeming to want to move into battle but instead struggling for the right words. Tommy Schrider's almost heroic Johnny Pope is effusive, pleasant, affectionate where the words would allow him to be defensive, occasionally brutal while pulling himself into a defensively distant mode of playing. Megan Ketch's simple lass of a Celia is almost too sweet to bear at a time in her life when pain and passion are stretching her unbearably. Greg Keller's drunken entrance at least allows his passionate failures to be realistic, which was much appreciated.
Triney Sandoval as Mother and Chris Bannow as Apples bring a touch of reality to this "Father Knows Best" family scene and Cornelius Davidson adds his own simplicity to the tougher, touchier aspect of the play. Their entrance scene at least reveals some ugly and unfortunate truths about Johnny, and that was so very much needed.
In the third scene of the play, which ends the first act, realism enters the picture but even here the actors seemed to be holding back, playing against the written roles. It was a step in the right direction, however, and the difference in our understanding and our feelings about the play and people began to move in the right direction. The second act improved upon this, but not enough and not soon enough either. The play, though always interesting, was just a flat piece of minor melodrama in the hands of director Greg Naughton. "A Hatful of Rain" should be so much more than that.
The always misshapen ending of the play is not helped in this production by the rapport-free relationships brought to the stage. We should want Celia to make decisions that will bring her some honest happiness. We want Father to stop badgering his two sons inappropriately. We want Polo to emerge from the misery that haunts him and we want, how we want, Johnny take take stock of his situation and finally deal with it like an adult. We are left in the Berkshire Theatre Group production with a touch of all of this, but not with it truly imprinted on our souls.
Costumes by David Murin perfectly defined the period and the people wearing them. Ann G. Wrightson lit the play for the realism but somehow missed the minor measure of romance that the script calls for. Fight choreographer Jesse Hinson did an excellent job except for a single face slap which didn't work at all.
Greg Naughton took risks holding his characters back, refusing them their passions and their rage. Celia feels it and expresses it in her words but never in tone or in any visible way. Johnny drops into indifference and self-indulgence where he should spark and fizzle, spark and fizzle. Polo's romantic passions are never made physically real enough. Father's indifference to one son and his belief in the other one is only spoken never moved. Nice stage pictures do not a family make, and in this play the director is directly responsible for removing what once made realism so very real on the stage.
Not often is this play seen and heard. For that reason alone I would urge any interested theater people to see the play while they can. Perhaps the actors will begin to move into the darker, harder core of the play as they perform it, but perhaps not. You'll only know by seeing it. It's a play I've waited half a century to see again and I don't regret showing up at the theater for it. My reservations are based on my experience and may not be yours at all. But I look forward to talking to anyone who sees the play; I'd love to know how it hit you.
Megan Ketch, Stephen Mendillo, Tommy Schrider; photo: Emily Faulkner
Greg Keller, Megan Ketch; photo: Emily Faulkner
A Hatful of Rain plays at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage of the Berkshire Theatre Group's Stockbridge campus at 83 East Main Street in Stockbridge, MA through August 30. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line to www.berkshiretheatrgroup.org.