Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

What to do when fish fall from the sky?

Krista Colosimo Viewers of When the Rain Stops Falling, at Saturday's opening night at Shaw might have found the play's apocalyptic long-range weather forecast appropriate given the recent earthquake and hurricane that afflicted North America in the past few days. Indeed, the setting, Australia, known for draught, is on the verge of submersion - as is our hope in this gloomy family drama by Andrew Bovell. His stormy weather with "nights that can sink a ship" mirrors the fractured marriages, accidental deaths, disappearing children and suicide - stark items that take one's breath away, ably staged by director Peter Hinton and his skilled cast.

The play opens during a relentless downpour in 2039 in Alice Springs. A big fish falls from the sky as the frustrated Gabriel York (Ric Reid) agitates about what to serve his abandoned son Andrew for lunch. Reid is first of the characters who literally inhabit Philip Larkin's poem, This Be The Verse - They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you. But they were fucked up in their turn By fools in old-style hats and coats, Who half the time were soppy-stern And half at one another's throats. Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, And don't have any kids yourself.

Ric Reid as Gabriel York with Peter Millard and Jeff Meadows Photo by David Cooper "I know why he is coming," Reid laments with palpable shame. "He wants what all young men want from their fathers. He wants to know who he is. Where he comes from. Where he belongs. And for the life of me I don't know what I will tell him."

The biblical-like fish from the sky marks the beginning of a family saga that jumps back and forth from 1959 to 2039, from London to Australia. With four generations of fathers and sons, their mothers, lovers and wives, the play is epic in scope, yet extraordinarily personal as characters from different eras share the stage, a reminder that besides chromosomes, we lug around family skeletons, anguish and an existential aloneness well captured by each actor.

Jeff Meadows as the abandoned child, Gabriel Law and Krista Colosimo as Gabrielle York, offer a glimpse of potential completion at Uluru, the magical (and dangerous) Ayers Rock, a sacred place rock not to be climbed.

Peter Millard as Joe Ryan, Wendy Thatcher as Gabrielle York (older) and Krista Colosimo as Gabrielle York (younger) Photo by Emily Cooper Donna Belleville as Elizabeth Law (older) Photo by David Cooper Graeme Somerville as Henry Law Photo by Emily Cooper Jeff Meadows as Gabriel Law, Tara Rosling as Elizabeth Law (younger) and Graeme Somerville as Henry Law Photo by David Cooper Kevin Lamotte Krista Colosimo as Gabrielle York (younger) and Jeff Meadows as Gabriel Law Photo by David Cooper

The play begins and ends with a puzzle that ruins the marriage of Henry (Graeme Somerville) and Elizabeth Law (Tara Rosling) in London in 1959 after the couple's son is born, forcing a chain of troubled events that end in Australia. Somerville's anguished looks and Rosling's burning anger are matched by the emptiness of Donna Belleville's older Elizabeth, Wendy Thatcher's afflicted older Gabrielle York, Peter Millard's inordinately patient and long-suffering Joe Ryan, finally emitting a primal scream and Wendy Thatcher's stunning older Gabrielle York reminding one of BC's tragic Sue Rodriguez a few years back.

Coincidence and recurring motifs, even habitual bits of dialogue emerge across the generations, as fish soup is prepared and served and wry jokes are made about the weather, noting that people are "drowning in Bangladesh."

Viewers might be confused with the repeated imagery and genealogy, (there's a handy chart in the program) but the trick here is to surrender to the unrelenting storm and wonderful work of Shaw's cast and crew. Camellia Koo has designed a simple yet effective set that aptly portrays our collective unconsciousness, distorting characters, psyche and their affects behind a glazed glass wall that serves also to portray seven postcards sent from an absent father to his son in such a dramatically moving fashion that one must see it to truly appreciate the macabre effect.

Jeff Meadows as Gabriel Law Photo by David Cooper

Flett is a truly tormented figure at war with memories of her younger self and her long-suffering husband, Joe (Peter Millard) who himself is painfully portrayed at the end on top of a huge table and flooring, encircled with archaic patterns that serve as the cosmos. Again, it's remarkable what Koo achieves with such a minimalist set that swirls to Richard Feren's moody music and Kevin Lamotte's uncanny illumination with startling flashes of lightening.

Throughout the play, characters physically and psychically encircle one another and sometimes stand vigil before their younger selves, fixed in sorrow or regret. The audience, trapped in its own darkness, echoes that which the characters must struggle with to find some way forward. At the end, one wonders if Bovell truly believes that we are capable of escaping our past despite the fact that the rain finally stops. (A character reads The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, 1975 - 2015) Inspired by the Enlightenment, he asks "if such enlightenment could ever take place again. Could we as a species, over time, take some kind of leap forward and be better than what we were."

Peter Hinton Camellia Koo Peter Millard as Joe Ryan Photo by Emily Cooper Ric Reid as Gabriel York, Wade Bogert-OBrien as Andrew Price and Jeff Meadows as Gabriel Law Photo by David Cooper Tara Rosling as Elizabeth Law (younger) Photo by Emily Cooper Wendy Thatcher as Gabrielle York (older) Photo by David Cooper

Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell adds, "This play fell in my lap like the fish at the beginning of the play and pulled me immediately into a dreamscape that became clearer and yet more layered moment by moment. Our first play from Australia is a truly original piece of theatre."

When the Rain Stops Falling is actually the second major triumph at the small, experimental Studio Theatre in Niagara on the Lake, following the gripping Top Dog/ Under Dog, and it makes one wonder if it's finally time to jettison some of the tired, traditional Shaw fare such as Candida and Heartbreak House for more contemporary pieces. If so, some older patrons will need to deal with Larkin-like expletives!

The play runs to September 17, 2011.

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