Blarney Production’s A Steady Rain is even better than what I imagined after reading Keith Huff’s script. The script itself is emotional and hits you hard, but being primarily two monologues between Chicago beat cops Denny and Joey, I thought Blarney might have some difficulties staging something that didn’t feel like ‘talking heads’. I shouldn’t have worried. Stellar co-stars Jesse Gervais and John Ullyatt and Director Wayne Paquette have created a show that’s inherently home grown, but feels incredibly foreign, transporting us to the host of social, cultural, and legal conflicts facing American police.
A Steady Rain is Denny and Joey’s story of the month where everything in their lives turned upside down and fell apart. Denny, played by John Ullyatt, is the ultimate family man – he’s got the perfect wife, 2.5 children (well, two sons and a dog) and a TV in every room in his house. His family has even been selected as a Nielsen family. Sure, he’s been passed over three times for a promotion to detective, but that’s because of the ‘unofficial quota system’ and nothing to do with his ingrained racism and tendency to rough people up and not follow protocol – right? Good thing he’s working overtime providing protection to prostitutes and taverns – for a fee – to make up for not being made a detective.
Joey – Jesse Gervais – is Denny’s much meeker, more likely to stick to the protocol, partner. Friends since ‘kinneygarten’, Joey has always played second fiddle to Denny’s top dog persona. If Denny is to be believed, Joey is not much better at being a cop than Denny is, with his alcoholism causing him to miss shifts or look the other way while on duty.
A Steady Rain starts when a pimp harassing one of the prostitutes under Denny’s protection attacks Denny’s family, setting off a series of events of Denny trying, in his own way, to keep his family safe. But, in taking the law – or some version of it – into his own hands, everything in Denny’s life spirals out of control, leaving Joey to try to pick up the pieces. A Steady Rain is a recounting of what happened – a he said/he said drama – where each man tries to justify his actions to the audience over the course of an intermission-free 90 minutes.
And this is why A Steady Rain hits so hard. It shows the audience the goodness in wrong actions. It’s a story of reconciling who you are with the world you live in. Of the morals and beliefs that make you who you are eventually driving you into tighter and tighter corners. It’s a story of protecting your family and society and asking, ‘How far would you go?’ And ultimately it’s about being able to live with, and pay the price for, the decisions you’ve made.
As A Steady Rain progresses, Denny gets more and more desperate. For Denny, everything is about logic – the one thing he never loses sight of. A Steady Rain takes place in the world of an American beat cop and is predicated on a combination of circumstances that aren’t as prevalent or crippling in Canada: long-term poverty, generational crime, social systems that don’t support overcoming either of the previous two circumstances, racially-fueled conflict, the right to bear arms, the pressure of the American Dream, and a whole other host of issues and circumstances that work against people. It’s out of this soup of social, cultural, and legal conflict that Denny’s logic arises – he has a duty to protect his family and society and the ends justify the means of achieving this goal. For an Edmonton audience, the differences between American and Canadian culture make it difficult to fully understand the rational Denny sticks to in his ever more complicated circumstances.
In the role of Denny, John Ullyatt has a difficult job: not necessarily convincing the audience that Denny’s logic is correct, but that it is actually logical. Over the course of the play he succeeds in taking our perception of Denny from a prejudiced cop who’s in it for power and not necessarily to uphold the law, to someone whose attitudes are reprehensible, but we can understand that he thinks he’s upholding the law and doing the best thing for his family. John’s unwavering insistence and genuineness in explaining Denny’s justifications starts off sounding absurd, but ultimately he is able to convince the audience of Denny’s rational.
While I’m a big fan of Jesse Gervais, at first I had difficulty believing him in the character of Joey. Contrasting against Denny by wearing more formal dress clothes and with more reserved body language, the portrayal of Joey’s timidity was almost too much to believe he could survive as a lifelong friend of wildcard Denny and a cop who is relaxed enough to not quite follow all of the protocols. However, that may be a fault of the script not providing more insight into why Joey’s backstory and why he holds on so tightly to his relationship with Denny. In any case, as A Steady Rain gets deeper into the conflict, Jesse becomes more and more heated as Joey and his body language started to relax into something that made more sense for someone who has put up with his best friend’s erratic behaviour while still holding him in high regard. Especially as both characters enter deeper into moral grey zones, Jesse’s reservedness shines more and more against John’s franticness and physically embodies the audience’s switch in preference from Denny’s charisma to Joey’s stability. Watching John tell Denny’s version of events, Jesse’s stance is very realistic and probably something we can all relate to – uncomfortable disagreement with what’s happening, but simultaneous support of his friend.
On the production side, Blarney’s film-noir take on the play is sparse, but effective. The story is so captivating that no underscoring is really needed. The lighting, especially the harsh, piercing lights coming in from both sides of the stage and above throws both characters into a police interrogation-like setting, with minimal set elements needed to support the setting. The set also has screens behind the actors, which are mostly with colour floods to reflect the mood of the scene, but could have perhaps been more effectively used with projections of the different settings A Steady Rain takes place in.
One element that really pulled the whole show together and surpassed the high expectations I had just from reading the script was the way the show was blocked. In the script, the two character’s monologues seem very separate and don’t imply a lot of interaction between the two characters, which poses a lot of challenges when the show is based on the deep, enduring friendship between the two characters. But, the way Director Wayne Paquette has blocked the show, even though Joey and Denny don’t verbally interact often, each is actively listening to what the other has to say and using body language – shrugs, shaking heads, hands in the air – to convey what he thinks of what the other is saying. Blocking the show this way really upped the connection between the two characters and made the show more than the “talking heads” exercise a lesser team may have tended towards.