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Berkshire Theatre's 'A Hatful of Rain' revives a once gut-wrenching play

Poster art for 'A Hatful of Rain' at Berkshire Theatre Group
Berkshire Theatre Festival

'A Hatful of Rain' at the Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, Mass.

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One of the great things about summer professional theaters is that, in need of product, they will pluck a rarely-revived work from theatrical history, and remount it for contemporary audiences. Oftentimes the productions will reveal the creakiness of the plot and outdated thinking, while other times will prove to be a major rediscovery that makes the play relevant for new generations.

The Berkshire Theater Group’s current offering of 1955’s “A Hatful of Rain” by the late Michael V. Gazzo falls somewhere in between. The plot, as groundbreaking as it was at the time of its premiere, still manages to creak, though honestly not as much as the stage or the aisles of historic Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, where this production plays through August 30. It’s probably best approached for historic interest—as one of the first plays on Broadway to depict drug addiction in a very graphic manner that doesn’t shy away from depicting its impact on the addict and his family. At the same time, it attempts to create some understanding, if not outright sympathy, for the addict while casting an accusing eye on what we would now recognize as the enablers, but for which there probably wasn’t such a word at the time.

At the same time, Gazzo’s style is typical of the structure and pace of any number of 1950-era plays. In order to extend the plot over two or three acts, the playwright withholds key information from the audience, characters withhold information from each other over and over again, and in what has become rare in most modern works, there are a number of minor characters who add a dimension of suspense as well as allow the playwright to make some social commentary. This kind of “well-made play” standard, in which behavior is carefully explained by the last act and life-changing decisions are realized, may be out of favor, but in general it works pretty well here, as long as an audience of today keeps the play within its historical context and tries to put itself into the shoes of an audience seeing the play for the first time in 1955.

Since “A Hatful of Rain” first premiered, the subject of drug use and drug addiction has become commonplace. We’re in the midst of a massive public policy change regarding marijuana. Characters on any number of television shows are seen using, dealing, and succumbing to drugs as well as not only recovering from drugs, but either developing confessional tell-alls or sadly re-succumbing. Just a few years after “A Hatful of Rain” opened on Broadway, a playwright would put actual drug addicts on stage in a written work based on many of their own actual stories. But one can still imagine the shock, surprise, and even distaste that many theatregoers probably felt upon their first encounter with this play.

That seems to be the thinking behind director Greg Naughton’s Berkshire production, which indeed is very respectful toward Gazzo’s work. Naughton, the second child of actor James Naughton to direct a production this summer at the theatre, plays it very seriously, as if we are privy to a family that unbeknownst to itself has a member spinning dangerously out of control. At least that’s how Gazzo and Naughton first present it, with a fairly traditional domestic dinner between decorated Korean War veteran Johnny Pope, his very pregnant wife, Claire, and Johnny’s brother Polo, who has moved into their bedroom theoretically due to some personal financial issues. Only gradually do we realize that something is off in this pleasant domestic arrangement, finding out that Johnny has not only lost his most recent job as a machinist, but has been through three others in the past six months, and that horrifying memories of being trapped in a cave-in during the war continue to plague him. We soon see his Johnny’s pusher arrive with some muscle to collect on an ever-rising debt for Johnny’s drug of choice, morphine.

Naughton strives to keep the situation as realistic as possible, aided by David Murin’s spot-on assemblage of 1950’s shirts, jackets, pants, dresses, scarfs, and suits that encompass various income levels and ethnic backgrounds. Hugh Landwehr’s set of the one-bedroom apartment is full of 50’s affectations, including appliances, furniture and a wall-mounted clock in constant need of repair, though it appears a bit too cramped even for the actors’ movement. It doesn’t seem to make the most use of the Fitzpatrick stage, with several dead ends, but it most certainly reflects a claustrophobic situation ready to explode.

Fortunately Naughton has assembled a top notch cast that includes three memorable actors who have consistently impressed me with their work over the years and who do not disappoint here. Tommy Schrider, who’s done some remarkable work at Yale Rep, is the addicted Johnny, gives a performance that slowly sneaks up on you, until it reaches crisis proportions. He’s quite charming as the seemingly loyal husband, whose demeanor and resolve quickly dissipates as he faces the consequences of his debt, whether it be shame, fear and in several particularly graphic moments as his hands shake, his forehead sweats and his large eyes contort evincing the impact of going cold turkey. Schrider makes Johnny’s constant denials and lies frustratingly believable, somehow managing to retain our interest and concern even as we learn the extent and history of his addiction.

Greg Keller, whose good looks have enabled him to grip audiences playing ostensibly well-meaning characters with a slew of flaws in roles at the BTF and Yale, does not disappoint here. Although his character is straight, his Polo may have been written as the first “label queen” on Broadway, keeping track of his name brand shirts, pants and shoes, and yearning for his first Bond suit. Keller slowly reveals Polo as not the upstanding noble brother he believes he is, but as a conflicted, jealous and angry sibling, who not only as eyes for his brother’s wife Claire, but who has sometimes reluctantly, sometimes willingly been abetting his brother’s recent relapse with money and tolerance.

Stephen Mendillo, who I’ve not encountered in a while but who I remember giving one of the more outstanding performances as Mitch in “A Streetcar Named Desire” that I have seen, is up to his previous standards as the brother’s father, up visiting from Florida, where he’s some sort of developer. Mendillo plays him with the right amount of stubbornness and bravado, as he continually praises his favored son, Johnny, while finding ways to blame and short-circuit Polo for having lost the $2500 that the father once loaned to him during a previous crisis. It’s also revealed that the father abandoned his children to other relatives after the death of his wife, which Mendillo explains in the most natural tones of an expert denier, who still expects his sons to honor him without any sense of understanding of what type of hurt they may have endured.

Megan Ketch, who I just recognized from my binge-watching of CBS’s “Under the Dome,” is marvelous as the pregnant Celia. Ketch plays her with the requisite amount of naivety and homespun optimism, but she makes clear that there is more to Claire, who in a rare 50’s circumstance, is a working woman, who takes her job seriously and has impressively worked out a schedule with her husband and brother-in-law that divides among them certain household duties. Ketch fits into her costume and 50’s era wig quite easily, and projects the frustration, yearning and confusion she feels as a result of her husband’s increasingly secretive behavior and up-and-down personality.

The other characters are Johnny’s supplier and his hangers-on, fellow addicts like Johnny, with Tracey Sandoval as the sarcastically-named Mother and Chris Bannow as Mother’s jumpy, over-eager second, being especially impressive as menacing, out of control junkies. Cornelius Davidson plays Mother’s unwilling muscle, Chuch, who maintains some understated sympathy and compassion for both Johnny and his brother.

Although we know a lot more about drug addiction than we did 60 years ago and have plenty more services available to help those who genuinely seek out assistance, the datedness of “A Hatful of Rain” did not especially bother me, and thanks to the performances and the pacing, I was relatively mesmerized particularly during the second act. That even includes a lengthy somewhat comic scene in the second act, which would be unnecessary in a contemporary production, when the morphine dealing crew occupy Johnny’s apartment while everyone is out, in which the playwright, no doubt needing to accommodate the moralistic censors of the time, depicts how drug addiction can lead to dangerous and irresponsible behavior.

Along with several other audience members, I was caught up short by the realization that in 1955 New York, that any case of drug abuse had to be reported to the police first in order for an individual to go into whatever limited treatment programs were available at the time. It’s quite a shock, and probably another factor that contributed to the play’s ability to rivet an audience’s attention.

Ultimately there is no major rediscovery here, but with the right director and right actors, a production can definitely demonstrate to an audience the power and impact that a play once had. And this Berkshire Theatre Group production does exactly that.

For information and tickets, contact the Berkshire Theater Group Box Office at 413.997.4444 or visit their website at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.