CHICAGO—Route 66’s new work, The Downpour, an ensemble effort by writer Caitlin Parrish, director Erica Weiss, as well as the small cast of actors, is the kind of work that gives me hope for theater’s future—it’s that good.
Older sister Robin (Brenda Barrie), warm, loving, and optimistic, has taken care of her younger sister Hazel (Caroline Neff) almost as long as she can remember. The caustic younger woman, a professor and successful writer for young adults, has made her sister proud with her career. These two seem incredibly close, and we soon discover why.
The sisters have survived a psychotic mother, turned so by Hazel’s birth. Now Robin is expecting a baby and Hazel is horrified: Will her beloved sister, who bravely shielded her during her mother’s episodes, suddenly turn mad?
Lawyer Fred (Peter Moore), Robin’s husband, knows nothing of his wife’s traumatic past, since Robin hasn’t told him. To protect her present happy life, she wants to put her past behind her and enjoy her doting husband, the first person to ever take care of her.
Or is she fooling herself?
Robin, indeed, has psychotic episodes after her baby is born and becomes a terrifying danger to those around her.
Hazel is determined to help her sister, no matter the costs. But will Robin, resentful toward her sister and terrified at what she’s becoming, allow Hazel to mother her, to swap roles?
Mike Miller (Stef Tovar), Fred’s best friend and a cop, rounds out the players and acts as needed comic relief.
Seated next to me in the audience, young actress Abie Irabor said the set presents us with a “picture frame of a perfect family,” and so do the characters. Yet dysfunction is just a scratch a way. The sister we think is a mess turns out to be the strength that all rely on and that enables her to grow past her own scars.
The language of the dialogue sings. Sometimes it flows back and forth realistically; at other times, it is something a touch more with startling imagery. A special treat is hearing Hazel read aloud from one of her stories.
The acting is just as sure. Moore as Fred starts as an easygoing guy who is just happy to have found a beautiful and warm wife. He ends up scared and ready to run.
Tovar’s Miller—despite our knowing he’s cheated on his wife, slept around, and hasn’t always been a terrific father—captures our hearts. We really want this regular guy (who is just a bit too funny to be that regular) to have a second chance at proving himself.
Neff plays Hazel as that kind of young woman who has no idea of her own strength and ability to cope since she’s been emotionally dependent for so long.
And although Hazel is the backbone of the story, Barrie’s Robin transforms from a self-assured woman in denial to a hysterical harpy spewing vitriol—without a trace of falseness. In my experience of witnessing psychotic episodes of rage and twisted thinking, they chill one into a surreal state. Barrie managed to do this for me.
Director Weiss has tremendous talent as well. Her transitions from scene to scene allowed us to stay deeply fixed on the action and allowed the actors to define the space as their own. All moments felt organically derived.
Set in the tiny space in the Greenhouse Theater’s second floor, we are practically in Robin’s and Fred’s living room (an inviting set by Brian Sidney Bembridge), and we want to cross that small divide. We ache to comfort these brave souls who take on the pain our culture sees all too often now: mental illness.
I hope that New York snatches this one up.
Greenhouse Theater Center
2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
Tickets: 773-404-7336 or GreenhouseTheater.org
Running Time: 2 hours
Closes: Oct. 19