Reviving a classic is an ambitious and risky undertaking. Many young directors haven’t yet traversed the bridge between what they want to accomplish and what they actually can accomplish. They may choose a canonical play because it already has a foundation for greatness, for success, for illuminating the human condition. Yet, without having a working knowledge of apprehending the material, the play flops, becoming a half-lit facsimile. Not so with the Jim Parrack-directed “A Hatful of Rain,” now playing at the Sherry Theater through July 28th.
Parrack exquisitely renders a live-wire, nuanced and above all brutally honest production that illuminates drug addiction and its affect on the family. Though set in the 1950s, playwright Michael Gazzo’s work resonates as poignantly today as then: The pandemic of prescription drug addiction in America is as relevant as ever.
As the play opens, Johnny Pope, played by Danny Barclay—hooked on morphine since returning with wounds from the Korean War—sits with his back toward the audience, an appropriate shadow in the Pope house. His wife, Celia, performed by the indomitable Ciera Parrak, reigns as a soon-to-be mother and wife struggling to maintaining a semblance of normality in a home riddled by confusion, neglect and resentment. Her father-in-law, John Pope Sr. (Brian Lully), visiting for the weekend, negotiates a seemingly purposeful incognizance of his failed role as a father with a paternal sensitivity revealed in a million tiny ways as we come to understand the family history. Lully’s quiet, informal tone draws the audience to the Pope’s kitchen table where the action zooms in like a close-up. We are mesmerized from the start by the Pope family having breakfast on what would be a normal family visit, if the family weren’t on the verge of crisis.
Not present in the opening scene is the youngest Pope brother Polo played by Devin Crittenden, whose role as least favorite son is compounded by having fallen in love with his brother’s wife. Living with Johnny and Celia in their small lower-middle-class apartment, one might think young Polo the least affected by his brother’s furtive drug habit, his father’s disdain and his sister-in-law’s distress. In lesser hands, Polo could be played as an opportunist coveting his brother’s wife while enabling his drug habit, but this ensemble of artists is too aligned with the playwright’s intention to allow that to happen.
Like an intricate tapestry, the players have their individual colors that weave together to create a single, cohesive design. As the only character who knows everything that is going on in the Pope house, Crittenden comes off as the most compromised and sympathetic character, juggling his flaws, his endearing love-struck “high,” his loyalty to his brother and unearned respect for his father with unflinching sincerity and purpose.
After the play, Crittenden emerged from the theater with the audience. I had not been released from the spell, that rare occurrence when art reflects life so authentically, it spirits you away into the artists’ world. Yet, here was this young man, not Polo standing around—adrenalin rushing, but tired. It was exhausting work. He commented that he was happy with the casts’ performance that evening, explaining the night before was a bit “rusty after having been off for several days.”
I thought about my role as critic. Had I gone the previous night, would this be a different review? Most certainly. A production gets better, more fine-tuned with each performance. I think about how after only a few weeks of rehearsal, actors present their work to be previewed at a time when the work is just getting its legs. On Broadway, the impression of the critic and what they write can then go on to make or break a play for the remainder of its run. Painters, sculptors, pianist, writers have the luxury of presenting a finished, polished product to be critiqued. Not so with actors.
Speaking with Parrack before the play, my questions for the young director focused on acting craft and how it crosses over to directing. Parrack explained his approach to both acting and directing as starting from the artist’s humanity and ending with his skill. Most actors and directors I’ve interviewed, including Frank Corsaro who directed the original production of “A Hatful of Rain” on Broadway, don’t have the clarity I found in speaking with Parrack. Many theatrical artists prioritize acting technique over the conscious and subconscious creativity of the human being. Simply put, Parrack defines craft as “the ability to be human in a situation that’s imaginary.”
As a spectator I found my role not so different from the actors. Due to their mastery, I was able to “be human in a situation that’s imaginary.” I laughed. I cried. I came from the theater knowing I had participated in a shared experience with the actors. They were not alone performing on stage. We were all experiencing Gazzo’s story together, our hands in mid air anticipating the fall of a teetering house of cards.