Review: “A Steady Rain” – Acting Up Productions

Professional theatre company Acting Up Productions was only able to offer five performances of “A Steady Rain” by Keith Huff.  I am very glad I got to witness one of them!

“Witness” is the most precise word for the experience.  In this piece, the theatrical fourth wall is down.  Two Chicago police officers try to explain to the audience and to themselves how their life-long friendship and partnership fell apart.

Their efforts are heartbreaking on many levels, and not just because the body count is high.  Being in the audience is not so much about judging them as about recognizing and respecting their complex humanity, sharing their sorrow, and knowing that, as the characters themselves acknowledge at different points in their storytelling, “there but for the grace of God” go you and I.

The Script

If you are a regular reader of Indy Theatre Habit, you know that I love oral tradition “platform” storytelling as well as theatre.  Often these two performance art forms overlap. “A Steady Rain” is definitely a theatre piece, but Keith Huff’s dialogues have a tandem storytelling vibe.  The dialogue sections are therefore richer than if the two characters were just taking turns telling their version of what happened, and there is a deliberateness that serves the story more than if two actors had just acted out together what happened.

This is especially true because the tandem-style dialogues are juxtaposed with monologues.  Part of what drives the tragic ending of the play is the fact that the two men’s stories told independently don’t “match up” when compared by their lawyer or co-workers. The tandem quality of their dialogues adds another layer of irony to an already ironic play.

The monologues, too, have what I love most about oral tradition storytelling: the people being told about are as richly realized as the tellers are real.

In other words, I felt as if the wife, the hooker, the chief of police, the children, the pimp, the serial killer – all of the other characters – were on that stage with the two police officers, even though there were only two actors.  Huff’s script insists that that the supporting characters be as real as the two main characters, Denny and Joey.

I also admired how distinct – consistently distinct – Denny’s voice and Joey’s voice are in the writing, yet how much their situations mirror each other.  Denny and Joey have been friends since childhood, when Denny’s idea of fun was playing “rock tag” until he was “the last man standing” and Joey let Denny beat up on him because he was afraid if he didn’t, Denny wouldn’t be his friend any more.

However, neither man is completely aggressive or completely passive.  Neither man is completely innocent or completely cruel.  Both men are in some form of denial about their situations.

What I loved most about the script was that every time I thought, “Ah, this is a play about…” something else happened and I had to change my take on it.

The Actors and the Director

Huff’s script requires strong actors and an insightful director.  Fortunately for Indianapolis audiences, the two actors in this production – R. Brian Noffke and Sam Fain – brought the two police officers – Denny and Joey – to life with impressive grace, compassion, power, and skill under the deft direction of Scot Greenwell.

Greenwell enhanced and amplified the tension in the script through his blocking and pacing choices but also, I imagine, by drawing on his own extensive experience as an actor and collaborator to help these actors bring forth nuanced individual performances and honest chemistry.

Through the actors’ brilliant portrayals, I understood and believed not only the violent plot of Denny and Joey’s lives, but also the many (and to me more interesting) layers of their personalities and relationships.

Noffke gave Denny a raw, explosive energy that was…not sexy exactly, but attractive nonetheless, like a magnet. Or a volcano. You feel nervous being in the same room with it but you can’t leave.

Fain gave Joey a sensitive energy that was sexy in its kindness and its willingness to change, but also ignorant and dangerous in its own way.  You want him to hold you in his arms, but you don’t want to be responsible for being his “light.”

It fascinated me that both men resisted change in their own ways.  For a long time, for example, Joey looked the other way as Denny broke rules, and drank rather than admit what he felt for Denny’s wife.

Denny says more than once about his language, about the way he interacts with his family, about the way he deals with his anger and more: “I can’t help it, I can’t change, it’s what I grew up with, it’s what I’m used to…”

And you want to say, “Well, it’s killing you, don’t you see that?  It’s killing YOU as well as the people you say you love.  Not to mention all these other people that are dead because of you.”

Denny says that he would do anything for the people he loves.  But the truth is he would do anything except learn to live in the complex middle rather than in the all or nothing.

Their friendship is toxic, dysfunctional, unhealthy…pick a word.  And yet, Noffke and Fain made me believe that Denny and Joey do value each other on some level and are doing the best they can.  They do want to help each other and help themselves.  They just don’t know how.

That is why the play is heartbreaking.  Not without hope, but heartbreaking.

The Design Elements

There was not a lot of theatrical razzle-dazzle to support or distract from the acting.  (So thank goodness the acting was superb in this production!)

However, I appreciated the subtle ways in which the low-key yet professional design work did enhance the purity of the acting.

The lighting design (by R. Brian Noffke) included a lot of action in the form of frequent changes, which helped build tension as well as helping to delineate scene changes, establish settings, and evoke moods.

The sound design (by Mason Absher) included pouring rain at judicious moments – not all the time, but often enough that the audience, like the characters, thought, “Oh, it is STILL raining!”  (We are still trying to acknowledge and deal with the emotions here.)  The sound design enhanced the feeling of relentlessness in the story.

The stage manager, Danielle Buckel, did a great job of executing the many light and sound cues.

The set (by R. Brian Noffke) was minimal but incorporated the bare brick wall of the Wheeler Arts Center’s performance space to good effect. The set included a big water cooler, which is always a popular spot for modern informal storytelling in real life and which in this play is a reinforcement of the water=emotions theme.  The set also included a simple table and two chairs that became Denny and Joey’s squad car, the dining room at Denny’s house, and more.

The costume design (by Jeff Hamilton) included what I think of as “cop shoes” – businesslike but also comfortable enough to run in if need be – for both men. But Joey wore a suit, like the detective he wished to change into, while Denny wore the tough-guy leather jacket he had always worn.  Although the only props in the play were water glasses, the costume pieces served well as props in some of the scenes.

The Venue and the Circumstances

Acting Up Productions is based in Greenfield, just east of Indianapolis, but they use various venues around town.  For example, I loved (enough to see it twice) their suspenseful production of “Night of the Living Dead, Part One” at the Indy Fringe Theatre last fall.  And their production of “Two Rooms” by Lee Blessing at Theatre on the Square this past January set a new bar for the definitions of powerful and moving.

They offered “A Steady Rain” at the Wheeler Arts Center in the quirky Fountain Square neighborhood on the near south side of Indianapolis.  Wheeler Arts happens to be right next to a police station.  After the show, I noticed two or three officers standing outside, talking.  I wanted to go over and ask them about the pressures of their job.  I am also curious about what it would be like to be in an audience of mostly police officers for this show.

The night I went, I was one of an audience of six people: a man and woman in the back row, a family of three (mom, dad, and college student) in the second row, and me in the front row.  I know that the size of the audience was bad news, financially, for the theatre company but I confess that I loved the intimacy of it, especially for a show like this and especially because the actors didn’t let the small house discourage them or keep them from fully committing to their characters.  They could have made “eye contact” with some of the empty chairs and felt safer, but they didn’t.  They made eye contact with us, the way the real Denny and Joey would have.

And the six of us were listening deeply and alertly, fully committed to being witnesses, too, so…well, the only way I know how to describe it is to say that the sacredness of the theatre space was allowed to appear.  I mean, the sacredness is always there, but sometimes it is hidden by rattling candy wrappers and flashes of cell phone lights or whatever.  There wasn’t any of that restlessness the night I went.

I know that theatre companies can’t survive with only six tickets ($15 each) sold per night. Brian Noffke told me later that they pay $100 per night just for the right to perform the script, never mind paying the actors or crew or designers or staff, or renting the space for rehearsals and performances, or printing programs and posters and so on.

I also know that a small audience does not necessarily guarantee mindfulness.

So…for a number of reasons I felt privileged to be part of that particular performance.

After the show, in the lobby, I told Acting Up’s business manager Elizabeth A. Williams, “I feel like cursing!  Like Denny!” And then I did.  I said, “Sh*t, that was f*cking great!”  Hah!

Outside the theatre, the family was lingering.  They included me in their conversation.  They had come on a whim.  We were all a little emotionally high from the show.  The daughter said, “I am a theatre major, home for spring break.

“THAT…” she pointed back inside “…is why I love live theatre.”

Future Projects for Acting Up Productions

I heard that other audiences for the short run of “A Steady Rain” were larger, which means we will get to see more of this company’s work.  Whew!  Acting Up Productions has an interesting mix of shows coming up in various locations, including “Night of the Living Dead – Part II” at the Wheeler Arts Center this fall. For more information, please see www.actingup-productions.com.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

(All photos above were taken by Elizabeth A. Williams and are used with permission. Roll your mouse over each one to see the people’s names.  I know, I know: you want to be able to read Indy Theatre Habit on your mobile device, too.  I’m working on it.)

Update 4-5-12 – After I posted this, I learned that the folks at Acting Up Productions plan to offer “A Steady Rain” again!  Watch their website for info about where and when.

2 thoughts on “Review: “A Steady Rain” – Acting Up Productions”

  1. Thanks for a spot on reveiw, Hope. I was just devastated by this show. I knew it would be powerful, but even after seeing it I didn’t draw the storytelling connection. They were just stunning in their portrayals, and how much courage does it take for a playwright to do what Huff (whom I’d never heard of) does–rely on only two people to tell the whole story. Good job.

  2. Thanks for reading, Susan, and for leaving your comment. Someone else wrote to me privately and gave me even more things to think about. For example, was Joey acting vindictively, or at least passive-aggressively? Anyway, this is definitely a show that one wants to think about and talk about for a long while afterwards!

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