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Storm System

ae ThreeDaysofRainComplex family mysteries saturate JTC's 'Three Days of Rain'

Evidently we have the Jewel Theatre Company to thank for the much-needed downpour recently. There must have been some sympathetic juju involved in JTC opening a play called “Three Days of Rain” just when Santa Cruz needed it most! The phrase in the title, besides being at the top of everyone's weather wish-list for the past few months, turns out to have special significance within the context of the play itself, a generational drama about family, secrets, and destiny.

As the action plays out in two different time periods, the simple phrase “three days of rain” becomes emblematic of the way the generations are fated to misinterpret and misunderstand each other. The phrase that one character dismisses as "a weather report," turns out to have much deeper, even life-changing significance for another.

Written by contemporary playwright Richard Greenberg and first produced in 1997, the Pulitzer-nominated “Three Days of Rain” grapples with the impact of parents on their offspring, intentional or otherwise, and the many ways that future plans for one's children can go awry. What's interesting is that the play begins in the present day, with adult children coping, literally and metaphorically, with the legacy of the past. It's not until Act Two, when the action shifts backward in time 30 years, that we begin to piece together the real story that the children will never completely understand. Along the way, Greenberg spins his yarn with plenty of tart observations and wisecracks, handled with typical aplomb by JTC's excellent three-person cast.

The play begins with a prickly reunion between siblings. The aptly named Walker (Stephen Muterspaugh), a wanderer living out of a backpack with a habit of running away from life's difficulties, has fetched up in a shabby New York City apartment. He and his sister, Nan (Julie James), the practical one, with a stable family of her own, are about to find out what they've inherited from the estate of their late father, a famous architect—along with Pip (Aaron Walker), a soap opera actor and son of their father's business partner, who has a complicated history with both siblings.

Briskly staged by director Bill Peters, their three-way dynamic is waspish and funny, but full of yearning. While the angsty sibs face memories of their silent father and crazy mother, the happy-go-lucky Pip admits how he always tried—but failed—to feel as bad as his friends because he "didn't want to be left out." ("It's like he's some weird, other ‘nice’ species," says the exasperated Walker.)

In the Act Two flashback, roles are reversed in many ways. Aaron Walker plays easygoing Pip's manipulative father, Theo, and James tackles the sibling's Southern belle mother, Lina (warm and vulnerable, but certainly not yet mad). But most impressive is Muterspaugh in two highly distinct and opposite roles, as amped-up Walker, and his shy, conventional, surprisingly stalwart architect father, Ned. We learn the reason for the "silence" Ned's children mistook for disapproval, and, in a touching moment, it's revealed how the carefree life Ned wished for himself and so ardently tried to confer on his son has instead turned into Walker's unhappy rootlessness. All these characters are compelling, and it's more a fault of the play than the actors that their story seems to end so abruptly.           

As always, JTC makes inventive use of its limited stage space. Set designer Nicole Braucher's rotating set not only provides different views of the same location as needed, but makes it possible to create blackouts between scenes. However, it's confusing that the interior is meant to be a downtown city apartment, complete with traffic noise and flashing neon lights outside, while the exterior appears to be a suburban house where characters can walk up to the window at street level and talk to someone inside.

Still, the plain white exterior is useful for some ingenious effects. Kudos to lighting designer Mark Hopkins and projection designer Davis Banta for a terrific rainfall interlude that is best experienced to be appreciated. In another lyrical moment, the suggestion of architectural plans blithely begin to draw themselves across the page-like surface as creativity ignites inside. These are the kinds of clever touches we have come to expect from JTC, the little theater company with big, bold ideas. 


‘Three Days of Rain’ plays Thursdays-Sundays, now through March 16 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. For tickets, call 425-7506, or visit jeweltheatre.net.
Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo

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