Route 66 Theatre Company at Greenhouse Theater Center. By Caitlin Parrish. Directed by Erica Weiss. With Brenda Barrie, Caroline Neff, Peter Moore, Stef Tovar. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kevin Thomas
Robin (Brenda Barrie) has achieved her dreams despite a devastating childhood raising her younger sister Hazel (Caroline Neff) in the wake of their mentally ill, abusive mother’s suicide. She and her husband Fred (Peter Moore) are successful lawyers. Their house is catalogue-perfect. And she’s expecting her first child. The only wrinkle comes when Hazel visits and prophesies that Robin's pregnancy will trigger the same postpartum psychosis that affected their mother.
Playwright Caitlin Parrish delivers genuine terror in a grounded family drama. Aberrant personalities, the specter of insanity, and a history of violence infect the tidy household. For the most part, it’s bracingly unromantic and nerve-rending.
At the center of the play is the sisters’ relationship, a series of contrasts held together by an intense bond of trauma. Robin is half sister, half mom, and Barrie’s performance reflects a woman who adopted adult affectations from an early age. She cast aside her history as soon as she could. The much younger Hazel wears her past on her sleeve and is prone to irrational behavior. Hazel is sometimes the hero of the play, at others the dysfunctional subject. Neff’s portrayal is bluntly sarcastic and unlovable to the extent that the character’s admirable moments can be hard to believe, and Parrish never seems to quite make up her mind about her either. But Neff and Barrie connect as Hazel and Robin; a painful intimacy exists between them, an unhealthy dependence on one another that stays alive on stage every moment.
The Downpour is not a typical “revealed past causes drama in the present” story. For Parrish the past is here, all the time. The girls may have survived their mother’s abuse, but that period is not over—it will never end. Hazel may be maladjusted, but she understands how close to the surface their past is, while Robin’s denial costs her dearly. This isn’t just engrossing, but accurate: Mental illness and trauma can become permanent specters, haunting even happy lives.
In pursuit of this, The Downpour doesn’t quite tie together our understanding of the past with the present. The past is revealing, but not deeply informative to how the sisters move forward from here. As a whole, the story does not reach a singular conclusion, though the ending feels like there was supposed to be one.
Erica Weiss's production more than compensates for this by being well-rounded; for a deeply serious play, there are good laughs, awkward moments, and even romance. The family and characters are fully crafted, which only make the disturbances that befall them that much more important to us.