There's not much I hate more than driving in the city at night in a steady rain. It's like being on bad drugs. The sky's the same color as the blacktop. The illuminated signs and streetlights reflect against the wet pavement distorting depth perception, confusing up and down. Police cars speed past, blue lights popping off like flashbulbs, kicking up a spray of oil and water.
Keith Huff's A Steady Rain is a perfectly named, tense, and powerfully disorienting play. Although it takes place in Chicago, the story could have been ripped from the headlines of any Memphis media outlet. It's a dark yarn about a flawed but basically good cop with a drinking problem and a few other problems and his big-hearted but basically amoral buddy who's creating his own perfect storm of bad decisions. The two police officers' entanglement in petty street crime turns into a bloody revenger's tragedy of Jacobean proportions. Was that The Wire? Or was it just last week?
For all of its currency,A Steady Rainis also a throwback entertainment in the spirit of countless backlot movie classics about real life on the mean streets and childhood friendships that endure even when buddies find themselves on opposite sides of right and wrong.
Like the sound of raindrops pattering against the roof, A Steady Rain has a kind of calming, hypnotic effect on audiences. It's a show that absolutely requires actors who are also great storytellers, able to weave their words around all of the distant sirens and not-so-distant gunshots. Two overlapping monologues create the framework of a play that unfolds with the cinematic ease of narrative theater. John Maness and John Moore are the only two actors onstage and they only ever portray the two troubled cops at the heart of the drama. But audiences are introduced to a vast ecosystem of interesting characters getting by the best way they know how at the rough margins of law and order.
A Steady Rain is loosely based on the story of two cops who accidently released a man into the custody of serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. But it's not really about that. It's about family, loyalty, and the same kind of demonic urge that ripples through D.H. Lawrence's short story "The Rocking Horse Winner." As is the case with Lawrence's story about a twisted childhood defined by economic circumstances, the walls of Theatre Memphis' Next Stage practically whisper "There must be more money."
Joey (Maness) is the good cop. He's not drinking and trying to be more racially sensitive. He's not going to be passed over for detective again. Denny (Moore) is the bad cop, skimming evidence and shaking down the prostitutes he says he's protecting. We've heard this story a thousand times before, but this time around it's especially intimate. It's like watching an autopsy of a relationship: detached but invasive, probing, and effortlessly gruesome.
In most cases, a person's discovery that they carelessly helped a cannibal serial killer obtain his next meal would be a life-defining low point. But for Joey and Denny, who are so plagued by their own bad decisions and even worse luck, it's just one more crappy thing on a long, depressing list of crappy things.
A Steady Rain deserves a longer run and time to find its audience. It would be great if the two Johns could somehow keep it in their gig bags. The play is directed by Jerry Chipman with a relentless and effective sound design by Eric Sefton, who, in this case, might as well take credit for scenic design as well.
At Theatre Memphis through March 3rd