Three Days of Rain

Jewel Theatre, rainmaker!

By Philip Pearce

Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain, nominated for but not awarded the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, had a second notable if brief moment of glory in 2006 when Julia Roberts chose it for her inauspicious Broadway stage debut. It’s now playing on the tiny Center Stage in a new production by Santa Cruz’s Jewel Theatre Company.

Lg-Playbill-RainA slangy bit of British metaphor describes a someone who is engaging but superficial as having “all the goods on display in the front window.” That’s not the case with Three Days of Rain. Unlike some other more popular theater pieces, this doesn’t leave everything in your lap, shiny and accessible, when the houselights go up and the cast take their curtain calls. Playwright Greenberg asks you to piece together shards of truth and speculation and downright error scattered throughout this probing and often uncomfortable story, if you hope to understand what it’s all about.

What that seems to be is the treacherous process of looking at the lives of your parents back then in order to learn who you are, and why, here and now. Hyper and unpredictable Walker Janeway (Stephen Muterspaugh) and his sensible, organized sister Nan (Julie James) learn that their late father, Ned, has, unaccountably, willed Janeway House, a building that has won him nationwide fame as an architect, not to the two of them but to their friend Pip (Aaron Walker), who’s the son of Ned’s late colleague Theo. Pip and Nan are puzzled, Walker enraged. Armed with father Ned’s maddeningly vague and erratic 35-year-old journal the three do some free-wheeling, argumentative speculating about what could have motivated the baffling bequest.

Act Two jumps back three and a half decades to show us what did happen. With each actor now taking on the role of their respective parent, we watch the tongue-tied, nose-to-the-grindstone Ned quietly expose some slick plagiarism by ambitious roommate Theo, and then with stumbling steps steal from Theo his bubbly girlfriend Lina. The angst and conflict of Act I seem to drift off in a cloud of cream-puff romantic comedy. Director Bill Peters even emphasizes this sentimental shift by closing the show with one of those silent film iris camera shots where a big circle of light pinpoints coyly down into a final blackout, here accompanied by the strains of My Blue Heaven.

What, you ask yourself, is going on here? The answer depends on going back to a future the romantics don’t dream of but which you’ve already experienced.

Piece together what you’ve learned from all those shards of truth, guesswork and error thrown around in Act I (as I did driving home to Monterey) and something searching and sad comes into focus. This is about two generations reaching out to touch and understand each other and never quite making it. The chocolate box climax which Peters and this skilled cast serve up so neatly becomes the final twist of irony in a searching and wistful piece of modern theater.

The cast do well by it. In their dual roles, Muterspaugh and James make major character shifts. He moves from the moody explosions of Walker in Act One to the quiet struggles of the stuttering, taciturn but delicately determined Ned in Act Two. She changes from a purposeful, no-nonsense suburban mom to the dippy flirtatiousness of her own mother Lina. Walker (not to be confused with the character played by Muterspaugh) is brisk and sympathetic as the easy-going television actor Pip and appropriately shallow and charming as his ambitious and not quite honest parent Theo.

It’s a pity the Center Stage is such a tiny box. Inevitably, the set is so cramped it limits movement and makes it hard to believe that one tiny drawing board could have produced a major architectural masterpiece. Can’t be helped! The company does its best and designer Nicole Braucher at least offers a sense of freedom and mobility with a revolve that moves the action smoothly from the interior to the outside of the Manhattan apartment that is the setting for both time periods.

Not a lot of seats out in the audience either and on the night I went, all of them seemed to be occupied, but the show continues through March 16th and is well worth the journey if you appreciate theater as an exercise in reflection and discovery.