They saved the best for last in the Shaw Festival's golden anniversary season.
Australian playwright Andrew Bovell's 2008 epic When the Rain Stops Falling begins in Alice Springs with an extinct fish falling from the sky at the feet of Gabriel York (Ric Reid), who is about to be reunited with a son he abandoned decades before. This takes place in the year 2039, making this the second play this season, after Bernard Shaw's On The Rocks, to be set in the future – though in that case Shaw's speculative future has at this point become an alternative past.
From this startling beginning, Bovell's drama swims upstream through time to our present and beyond to delve into the lives and loves of Gabriel's British father Gabriel Law (Jeff Meadows) and grandfather Henry Law (the exquisite Graeme Somerville), each of whom took a fateful trip from English to Australia and left sons to grow up fatherless.
With its genealogical journey that spans the planet and a central, horrific secret waiting to be unwrapped at its centre, When the Rain Stops Falling will come across to Canadians as an antipodean companion piece to our Wajdi Mouawad's Scorched.
As with Mouawad, Bovell has his characters echo lines of dialogue that gradually gather in resonance across generations. Seven postcards that a distraught Henry sends to his son Gabriel from Australia in the 1960s become a disconcerting chorus with their unsettling references to the planet Saturn, named after the Roman god who devoured his children. Seemingly simple comments about odd weather slowly tap into our deepest fears surrounding all the devastating forces of nature beyond our control, both in and outside of ourselves.
Director Peter Hinton's production of this poetic pretzel of a play is his best work in years – full of haunting images but also simple and clear in the way a play with three homophonic characters (Gabriel, Gabriel and Gabrielle) needs to be so as not to leave the audience behind.
With the help of an elegantly designed set by Camellia Koo (and a well-sculpted sonic landscape from Richard Feren), Hinton stages most of the action on or around a dining room table where family members meet to eat and almost catch glimpses of one another across time. This table also doubles as Uluru or Ayers Rock, the famous natural wonder of Australia that here is central to the play.
Though Ric Reid seizes attention off the top with Gabriel's message from the future, the production can't be said to have any stand-out performances – just beautifully blended ensemble acting telling a story that gradually becomes as engrossing as any mystery novel.
The quartet of women in the cast double up on characters: Krista Colosimo and Wendy Thatcher take turns playing the younger and older versions of gutsy and grounded Gabrielle York, who grows up in a remote region of Australia and whose life is twice turned upside by visiting Brits. Tara Rosling and Donna Belleville are slightly less in sync as two versions of the nervous, intellectual Elizabeth Law, who is married to the melancholy Henry, whose actions turn her world upside down and similarly sends the action spiralling off to the opposite hemisphere.
There's an awful lot of coincidence in When the Rain Stops Falling, but when a play begins with an fish falling from a rainstorm, a certain amount a poetic licence is expected and granted. That fish turns out to be a symbol of hope for our ability to heal, as a species or family, if not always as individuals. Indeed, Hinton's wrenching final image, a dinner party where only one family member is left out, suggests that, sadly, some crimes are too big to be forgiven.
When the Rain Stops Falling
- Written by Andrew Bovell
- Directed by Peter Hinton
- Starring Jeff Meadows and Krista Colosimo
- At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
- To Sept. 17