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A Hatful of Rain

American drama of the mid-20th century was often a return to the well-made play: tightly constructed climactic plays in which characters with secrets collide with consequences. The grittier the subject matter the better.

From Arthur Miller to Tennessee Williams, playwrights examined the lives of ordinary people whose lies and personal failings force drama upon those they love. In Death of a Salesman (1949), Willie, who can no longer make a living and steps out with other women, secretly wants to die. In The Glass Menagerie (1944), Tom hasn’t paid the electric bill because he secretly plans to skip town. In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Blanche is trying to hide the fact that her sexual promiscuity has earned her an invitation to get out of Laurel, Mississippi. In All My Sons (1947), Joe has put the blame on his friend and business partner for his own secret failure to maintain quality standards —a mistake that caused the deaths of 21 pilots.

In A Hatful of Rain (1955), playwright Michael V. Gazzo follows Johnny Pope, an ex-serviceman whose secret is that he has become addicted to “dope” as a result of medication for his war injuries. His pregnant wife, Celia, interprets his nighttime absences to indicate an affair. Would that were true. Johnny is in debt to ruthless drug pushers.

The current production at American Repertory Theater of WNY, directed by Matthew LaChiusa, reminds us of the power of this arguably melodramatic work, and the beauty of its tight construction. Hugh Davis plays Johnny and Maura Nolan plays Cecelia, roles created by Ben Gazzara and Shelley Winters, and immortalized on film by Don Murray and Eva Marie Saint in 1957.

The production makes efficient and effective use of the intimate ART space in the basement of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension at Linwood and North.

The key feature of this period of drama, of course, is the marvelous roles these plays afforded to a generation of great actors. In this regard, the crew at ART has certainly stepped up to the plate. Raphael Santos and Victor Morales give compelling performances as Johnny’s conflicted brother and father. Bryan Bigueroa and Leo Dibello personify evil as a drug pusher and his henchman, and Steve Brachman gives an affecting performance as their drug addicted lackey. Brianna Lanoye plays a promiscuous socialite who provides some disturbing comic relief.

It is notable that the material holds up so very well. At its heart, Davis and Nolan are marvelous as a couple struggling with the tragic secret one is keeping from the other.