Review: “The Downpour” (Route 66 Theatre Company)

Caroline Neff and Brenda Barrie, featured in Route 66 Theatre Company's production of The Downpour.  Photo by Brandon Dahlquist.
Caroline Neff and Brenda Barrie, featured in Route 66 Theatre Company’s production of “The Downpour”.
Photo by Brandon Dahlquist.

Show: The Downpour

Company: Route 66 Theatre Company

Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center Upstairs Studio

Die Roll: 12

There is literally only one thing that I can criticize in Route 66 Theatre Company’s production of “The Downpour” by Caitlin Parrish.  And that one thing is so insignificant in the grand scheme of things that by mentioning it, I am really only pointing out how very right the rest of the production was.  What was the thing that stood out as problematic to me?  In one scene, the sports attire worn by the two men in the cast appeared to be straight off the rack, never worn, never washed, and therefore not the clothing of true sports fans.  Yup.  It’s a nit-picky costuming note.  I might guess that my critique will be rendered moot once they do laundry after the first week of the run.  So, with nothing else negative to say about this production, let me tell you about the play I saw the other day at the Greenhouse Theater Center…

Parrish has written a script that takes on a condition that is difficult to talk about in even its simplest form: mental illness.  And she takes it up a few levels of intensity by looking at how mental illness of a parent affects young children, and also what happens when that mental illness is passed on to the next generation.

In truth, when I saw the show I didn’t know much about whether giving birth could act as a trigger for psychotic episodes.  I still don’t.  I also didn’t know to what degree such illnesses are genetic.  Thanks to an article that came out the day after I saw the show, I have a slightly better idea about that.  But, even without much background knowledge this play took me right into the character’s reality.  And it was a reality filled with fear, frustration, caring, love, and ultimately healing.

Scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge provided a set that truly let us watch the action through the 4th wall of a comfortable suburban home.  The way that the 4th wall was actually there, but cut away, made it ever clear that we were looking into the intimate moments of people’s lives.  Normally, the wall that would normally close off a house is just left off completely from a stage picture.  The subtlety of leaving a foot or two of exterior within the audience’s constant view was a nice touch that made what seemed to happen beyond that barrier to feel more real.  And, when the actors came outside the house, those moments felt all the more immediate, because the actors were within the audience’s space.

Director Erica Weiss filled that space with a remarkably able cast.  I cannot imagine a set of actors better fitted to their parts.  Caroline Neff and Brenda Barrie (who played sisters Hazel and Robin, respectively) would very well have been sisters in real life, given the natural feel to their interactions.  Stef Howard brought to life in his performance of Miller, a man who clearly was 100% Chicago cop in all the best ways possible.  He was down to earth, a good friend, trying to be the best man he could, and absolutely authentic.  Finally, Peter Moore completely embodied a nice guy who somehow managed to marry his dream girl, and through force of will and the support of his friends manages to take on everything life throws at him, even when he’s already been beaten down.

Each relationship within the play was played out with so much commitment and truth that this was truly an edge-of-your-seat experience.  Every person in the audience (me included) was vested in what was going to happen next.  We were immersed in the problems and fears of the characters.  At one point, in a moment of brutal honesty between the sisters, nearly half of the audience had an audible reaction akin to “oh no you didn’t!”, but without words.  The tension and emotion in this play is palpable, and it envelopes those on both sides of the stage.

When I go to watch a play, I often find myself painfully aware that I am one step removed from truly experiencing what is going on onstage.  Such is the risk of being a reviewer.  The act of “watching” can’t be left behind to just “experience”.  But this play sucked me in so completely that I stopped taking notes almost immediately, and I gave up my observer’s post in favor of being a witness to the brilliance of what was taking place in the lives of four people who were desperately holding on to their own truths in an ever-changing reality.

The sound design of Christopher Kriz and Eric Backus managed to turn an offstage infant into an active character in the play through the use of a baby monitor which was often carried around by those who were on stage.  It provided a great limit on what could be done, and also provided a couple of the more sweetly funny moments.  As for the play’s scarier moments, I haven’t seen a more real feeling fight scene than the one staged near the end of the 1st act by John Tovar.  That was simple and terrifying choreography at its best.

The best part, for me, was that it was entirely possible to find parts of each character to identify with.  I found both good and bad aspects of myself in each of them, and I’m sure that others will find parts of themselves (not necessarily the same parts as I did) in each of them as well.  The parts were all well-drawn in the script, and when this cast breathed life into them, they became the very real people who we cared about completely for a couple of hours.  That is remarkable work.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Marriage and motherhood are endangered by repeat of ugly past.

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”