Keith Huff’s play A Steady Rain (playing through March 2 at The New Hazlett Theater, produced by barebones productions) is, on one level, a play about a friendship tested by extreme circumstances. Denny (Patrick Jordan) and Joey (David Whalen), best friends since childhood, have, as adults, long been partners on one of Chicago’s toughest police beats; they know each other intimately and cover each other’s backs in ways large and small. Though on the surface they seem to be likeable men, they both have ugly flaws: the Italian family man Denny imagines himself a chivalric defender of women and the weak, but his “protection” takes some shady forms (i.e., shaking down and/or exploiting drug dealers and prostitutes); in addition, he’s got anger-management issues (deriving in part from his conviction that his a victim of reverse racism) and substance-abuse problems. Joey, an Irish bachelor, has a drinking problem that Denny is convinced he can solve by finding a woman to occupy the space in Joey’s life that booze has taken over; Joey is also, it turns out, an opportunist who can be tempted into moral gray territory by the right incentive. The play’s plot turns on a series of unsettling events provoked, initially, by Denny’s corrupt involvement in the underworld, and culminates in their being pitted against each other by police internal investigators over their incompatible versions of how and why they responded as they did to a domestic disturbance call that has disastrous consequences.
To say more about the plot would give away some of the pleasure of watching the play, which depends to a certain extent on surprise and suspense. But on another level, what this play is really about is unreliable narration, and the deeper and more satisfying pleasure it provides is that of puzzling through the various layers of storytelling to try to locate something that resembles a truth and a moral center in the play. For the two men do not only differ in their account of the botched response to the domestic disturbance call that brings the crisis in their friendship to a head; they also differ in their perspective on all of the events leading up to that moment, waffling between self-serving rationalization of their own (often shameful) thoughts and actions, generous and loyal defense of their partner’s decisions and point of view, and, depending on the emotional moment, more or less veiled criticism of the same. The complexity and contradictoriness of these characters is rich and rewarding: their feelings about each other, and about the harrowing situation they’ve been catapulted into, are complicated and capricious, allowing us to see the full range of the good, the bad, and the ugly in these men. Although at times the story feels like something you’d see on Law and Order or Chicago Fire, Huff’s characters are far more intricate and difficult, and the dilemmas they have created for themselves present no clearcut solution, for them or for us.
Whalen and Jordan are in excellent form in this production, fleshing out the characters with a warmth and sympathy that allows us to see, from their perspective, how very right they are at the same time that we see, from our own, how completely wrong they have been. It’s important to a play like this, in which competing truths battle to be heard, that each actor fights for his character’s point of view no matter how low or monstrous that character is revealed to be; it’s what lets the play leave the proper uneasy aftertaste in our mouths. Whalen and Jordan make it hard for us not to find something to like in both of these men, even as we find much to detest in them both, and they masterfully trade our sympathies back and forth over the course of the play. Melissa Martin’s direction is understated and lean, keeping the emotional heat at an appropriate simmer, although towards the end of the play there’s a moment of (in my opinion) overboil into high melodrama (which, to be fair, is probably an irresistible feature of the writing). The lighting design by Andrew David Ostrowski adds dimension to the spare, cool set, marking boundaries and pathways on the floor that isolate or join the two friends as required, and Dave Bjornson’s subtle sound design effectively sets the mood and shifts the atmospheric register from scene to scene.