November 10, 2011

Reader’s Theater to Perform A Steady Rain

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Denny and Joey are about to be caught in a crossfire. Their silver police department badges glint in the hazy light. Urgency and mystery hang in the air as the police officers sit in a small red room, studying thin black books. They seem to be preparing for an interrogation. But this time the tables have been turned. Denny and Joey have inadvertently placed a Vietnamese boy into the hands of a cannibalistic serial killer, and now their jobs and friendship are on the line. The bluesy wail of an electric guitar shatters the silence.

On Wednesday night, the cast of The Readers’ Theatre’s A Steady Rain gave an intense and intimate preview of their upcoming play, which will premiere on Dec. 2 at The Space, next to Greenstar. Director Anne Marie Cumming’s living room served as a surprisingly effective black box. Seated just inches away from the actors, the small audience could well be gathered in Denny’s home, in which much of the action unfolds. A Steady Rain was most memorably staged on Broadway in 2009, to widespread acclaim, with Daniel Craig (of James Bond fame) and Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) playing the lead roles. The Readers’ Theatre strips down the play by eliminating props and placing the spotlight on word and (limited, but highly calculated) movement.

Denny (Junito Cubero) and Joey (Tim Perry, the associate artistic director at The Readers’ Theatre) have been partners in crime since kindergarten. As best friends and partners in the Chicago police force, they are veterans of one game — “to be the last man standing.” That was the crux of Denny’s childhood invention, “rock tag.” The phrase is also their mantra as they patrol gritty streets and “deviant corners” (the term is again Denny’s concoction).  Through their opening banter it quickly becomes clear that Denny (Junito Cubero) and Joey (Tim Perry) are opposites. Denny is the brash and blustering family man who lives stubbornly by his skewed code of honour and loyalty. In contrast, Joey is the pragmatic and prudish bachelor, who is comparatively more mild-mannered. Nonetheless, Denny and Joey share many things: they are honest and loyal men, they dream of becoming Starsky and Hutch and they are in love with the same woman.

Despite the stock imagery, A Steady Rain isn’t your standard cop drama. It’s an intriguing tale of love and loss. You feel compelled to take sides, but quickly find that it’s impossible to do so, because truth and loyalty come in so many guises. There’s so much that Denny and Joey struggle to rationalise and articulate that it comes as a relief when veteran blues musician Pete Panek steps in with his electric guitar to express the unspeakable. Mr. Panek has shared the stage with blues greats like Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor and Bo Diddley. He currently hosts the Blue Monday Jam at The Nines and the Blues Progressions radio show on WICB. Mr Panek’s notes punctuated the reading at crucial moments; they were at times insistent and fiery, and at times cool and contemplative. The bluesy notes threaded the narrative fragments together, as if to say that in spite of everything, life must go on.

Although the show is still strictly a work-in-progress, Wednesday’s performance was already gripping and poignant. Mr. Cubero and Mr. Perry certainly deserve credit for fleshing out highly complex, imperfect and likeable characters. Often, Denny and Joey affectionately allude to their dream of making the rank of detective. When things take a turn (actually, several turns) for the worse, a moist-eyed Denny wistfully refers to the “good old days” when he and Joey were like Starsky and Hutch. Another sparkling instance occurs when a hollow-eyed Joey confesses to kissing the love of his life, Denny’s wife Connie, at a time of extreme chaos. When Joey goes to bed with Connie, he is convinced that he sees Denny in the hallway. Guilt-stricken and heartbroken, Joey goes out to find Denny in the pouring rain. The rain is just one of many motifs sprinkled throughout the play; detecting and connecting these motifs makes the performance reading an even richer experience.

The playwright Keith Huff dramatizes several real-life events in the play. Following each performance, Cornell Professor Richard Polenberg will explore these events through a twenty-minute lecture entitled “Keith Huff: The Playwright as Historian.” Professor Polenberg, the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History, is a specialist in twentieth century American and constitutional history. Professor Polenberg will also discuss the issue of affirmative action, a theme that runs throughout the play, as well as the Chicago police department’s attempt to conform to affirmative action requirements following the 1978 Bakke case.

Original Author: Daveen Koh