F or its first half at least, Australian playwright Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling, a multigenerational family saga set in Australia and England and spanning 1959 to 2039, pulls off the tricky feat of being both compact and sprawling, like a high-toned TV mini-series boiled down to its essential elements. Director David Cromer—the man behind last season’s raw, luminous (and still running!) Our Town, as well as the ill-fated but intelligently staged Brighton Beach Memoirs—knows how to keep multiple story lines crisscrossing clearly, and he’s good at teasing out some of the intricacies of interfamily suffering. At the heart of this story are two young lovers, Gabrielle and Gabriel (Susan Pourfar and Will Rogers), who meet in Australia’s desolate Coorong district in the late eighties and begin an impulsive but tentative life together, even as they try to wrestle down their respective family ghosts. The Australian Gabrielle is haunted by the long-ago disappearance of her older brother; Gabriel’s father, a weather-obsessed English nerd played by Richard Topol, also mysteriously vanished when the boy was only 7, leaving him and his mother to endure a chilly, uncommunicative relationship that’s troubling to both of them.
It’s a complicated setup, introduced in an evocative opening: The show kicks off with a sight-and-sound symphony that might have been conceived by a depressive Jacques Demy, incorporating twirly black umbrellas, the sinister pitter-patter of driving rain, and the hearty thud of a supposedly extinct fish as it mysteriously falls from the sky. But there’s just too much going on, and coming down, in When the Rain Stops Falling, and not even Cromer can keep this ambitious narrative from spiraling down a storm drain of dourness. The actors struggle valiantly against the grim current, further challenged by the fact that younger and older versions of the same character often appear onstage at once. Mary Beth Hurt, in particular, as the older incarnation of Gabriel’s mother, manages to play emotional isolation as a vital quality, not a dead one. But the plot depends too heavily on one big “Oh no he didn’t!” coincidence. And in the end, family wounds that have been lying open like bloody gashes for 70 years are healed by little more than forgiveness, and, I kid you not, that fish: He makes his final appearance as a baked Messiah, promising eternal peace for all. Overcooked into submission, he has ceased being a fish and is now just a symbol, a sad metaphor for a play so stuffed with brooding ideas that it forgets to be a story.