By James E. Trainor III
Photo by Bob Goodfellow
They’ve known each other since kindergarten. They look out for each other. When Denny’s racist remarks get them passed over for promotion, Joey teaches Denny to be more sensitive. When Joey’s drinking gets out of hand, Denny invites Joey over to dinner nights to keep an eye on him. They’ve got each other’s backs; they know all each other’s secrets. So when a bullet from a .44 Magnum comes sailing through Denny’s window, the two are already inextricably linked as they embark on a case that is sure to spiral quickly out of control.
Jim Van Valen immediately takes over the stage as the outrageous Denny. At the opening moment, there’s a brief pause, as if they’re not sure who gets to tell the story. Joey is carefully deciding how to begin, but Denny can’t contain himself. He’s a very large presence; he gets up, he walks downstage, he starts spitting out anecdotes. He warms up the audience immediately; he may be a bit bigoted and crude, but he’s a lot of fun, and his heart’s in the right place.
Van Valen brings us into the mind of this nuanced character with passion and skill. As the story progresses and we see Denny in crisis, we get the sense of how long he’s been walking a beat, how much danger and despair he’s seen. We might not agree with him, but we recognize him and understand why he wants to make his city a safer place. This connection with the audience makes it all the more tragic when Denny begins to come unhinged, each reckless action precipitating another. Van Valen throws his entire body into this part and lives in this mess of a man; it’s gripping storytelling and an impressive display of craft.
Martin Andrews is the perfect partner as the more cautious Joey. Andrews is polished, crisp with his language, and adept at drawing the audience into this dark, gritty world. He has a knack for saying volumes with a few sentences and a small gesture. His steady, matter-of-fact cadence counterbalances Denny’s wild exclamations quite well.
There’s a lot going on internally with Joey, and Andrews communicates it excellently. The mix of pride and embarrassment he feels for his partner comes through not so much in the factual descriptions of Denny’s antics but in the layer of emotion — never overplayed, but always readable — behind the words. By the time Denny hits the bottom, it’s clear Joey is there because he cares deeply for the man. It’s also clear that he has to make some devastating choices, and nobody’s coming out of this one clean.
All this is crafted with imaginative but lifelike detail by playwright Keith Huff. He creates an incredible but familiar urban landscape with his words, paints evocative pictures of these sometimes gruesome street scenes. The characters are complex while still archetypal. They’re intriguing to listen to and thrilling to watch. The plot is very carefully woven together, so it’s always clear how closely the destinies of the two men are linked.
Riverside’s production realizes this script in the best way possible: a bare stage with a couple of chairs for the actors playing Denny and Joey to sit on. The rest of the very colorful characters that inhabit this world appear out of thin air, carefully crafted but ultimately ephemeral, seeds for the imagination of the audience to nourish into life. In an age of bombastic musicals and spectacular light shows, it’s refreshing to see theatre distilled down to its basic elements. Two actors, two chairs. Good acting and good writing combining to make a great story. Done well, as it is here, this type of production is intensely engaging for the audience.
The sound and light design combine to round out the corners. The titular metaphor of a rain that won’t let up is expertly executed, coming in at just the right times, creating a wonderful backbeat for the actors’ voices. The lights, with very full colors reflected by a simple backdrop, take us into the darker places of the play quite fully and bring us back just as readily. The transitions are excellently timed, using string arrangements of familiar rock songs to give us a brief respite from the breakneck pace of the story while not letting the theatrical energy drop. Katherine Horowitz’s sound, Bryon Winn’s lights, and Joseph Price’s direction work together fantastically, giving this wonderfully dramatic script the atmosphere it deserves.
A Steady Rain runs through April 15 at 213 N Gilbert St in Iowa City, 7:30 Thursday through Saturday, 2pm Sunday (excepting April 8). There will be a talkback on Sunday, April 1. Tickets are $28 ($25 Under 30/Over 60, $15 18 & Under) and can be purchase at Riverside’s website or by calling 319.338.7672.