No midnight maulings or supernatural terrors this time around. Richard Greenberg’s drama Three Days of Rain, which spotlights two stars of the made-in-Portland television hit Grimm, has its monsters, but they’re ordinary, human-sized monsters, vulnerable and malleable and made of misunderstandings.
And, yes, just to get That Question out of the way: Silas Weir Mitchell and Sasha Roiz are much better than all right onstage. They give nuanced, playful, assured performances, easily filling the main-stage space at Portland Center Stage, and work seamlessly with stage veteran Lisa Datz, who is quite brilliant in a pair of crucial and contrasting roles.
The casting of Mitchell (the excitable, wolf-like Monroe on Grimm) and Roiz (the smoldering Captain Renard) is less stunt casting than just good casting. Yes, you can see hints of their television personalities. But they’re creating specific personalities based on the characters Greenberg wrote, and they’re doing it very well. The Grimm connection in a Grimm-crazy town gives the whole thing a little extra buzz. But if you’d never seen an episode, you’d still likely enjoy these performances.
I’m betting you’ll like the play, too, which premiered in 1997 and is witty and sad and star-crossed and elegant. It’s not a big play: this is not Greek tragedy, and it’s not Chekhovian, though that sort of blunted Russian domesticity comes a little closer to the mark. Smart and insightful and humane, it has a rueful American quality, hopeful in spite of itself. In the allusive way it deals with family relations it reminds me, a bit, of Richard Nelson’s cycle of Apple Family plays, which Third Rail Rep began to produce and unfortunately had to cut short halfway through the series.
Three Days of Rain is about, superficially, the difficult art of architecture, and, more deeply, about the ways we shape our lives, often from blueprints that fail to take into account the complexities of human terrain. A shimmering vision dominates the play’s proceedings, a golden house, like Farnsworth or Fallingwater, that defines the hopefulness of life and the purity of design.
It’s a wonder of the world, this Janeway House, a serendipity of space, a creation that exceeds even its architect’s aspirations: fluid, organic, simple, a hall of light in its many variations, each room reflecting it in its own way so there is infinite variety within the unity of the place.
“The house is very beautiful,” Walker, the architect’s frustrated and scattered son, ventures in the first act. “I think it could only have been designed by someone who is happy.”
In the second act, the architect himself, Walker’s father, Ned (Mitchell plays both father and son), explains the mystery in his own, more measured, way: “There’s an intuition held in reserve, a secret the architect keeps until the building is built. It may only be that the plans actually work.”
We all make plans, and sometimes, they work. Sometimes, even when they work, they fall apart afterwards, like unstable edifices. That’s just life, Greenberg suggests. As much as you try to freeze the music, it melts and slips away.
The mysteries of space are at the heart of Center Stage’s sly and eloquent new production, and the spaces are multidimensional. They are architectural, yes, but they are also spaces between people, who are so adept at fundamentally misunderstanding one another: gaps between generations, impossible separations of time. By the end of the play, the audience knows far more about the truth of things than any of the characters, and yet even the audience is left in the dark about a good deal: Three Days is shadowed with missing links, dark places with little hope of revealing light.
All of which sounds extremely sober-sided, and doesn’t hint at the warmth and human comedy of the play, which at Center Stage flows swiftly and easily under Chris Coleman’s rhythmic direction. The play’s backwards structure – a first act set in 1995, after the great architect’s death (he is, we surmise, of Calatrava or Gehry stature); the second act set in 1960, at the beginning of his career – makes sense as the thing unfolds.
In Act One, Mitchell plays Walker Janeway, Ned’s wandering and desperate son, who believes he hates his cold and distant father, and that his father detested him. Datz is Walker’s older sister, Nan, who lives a comfortable and busy life but worries about her brother, and protects him, when she can, even from things he really ought to know. Roiz is Pip Wexler, son of Ned’s partner in the architectural firm, and the happiest of the three. Pip is smart and suave and good-looking but knows he has no great talent, and feels fortunate to have stumbled into a lucrative career as a star on daytime TV. It’s a gift: why fight it? Walker, in his fevered quest to understand his father, has discovered a journal that silent Ned kept, and looks to it for secrets, but finds only one-liners: “April 3rd to April 5th: Three days of rain.” Mitchell brings down the house with a frustrated, sarcastic two-liner of his own: “The thing is, with people who never talk, the thing is you always suppose they’re harboring some enormous secret. But just possibly, the secret is, they have absolutely nothing to say.”
It’s a side-splitting moment, and, as the audience eventually discovers, dead wrong. Three Days of Rain is very much about the impossibilities of the present understanding the past, even – and maybe especially – when family is involved: that which is closest is hardest to see. Walker utterly, tragically, hilariously misinterprets his father. It’s a bit like the situation in Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker, in which a future generation looks back on the archaeological record and creates a plausible yet completely wrong-headed myth about the past, a topsy-turvy catechism of a world that never was. Even when we have the facts, or fragments of them, we don’t know what they mean.
Act Two shifts back to the beginning of things, in 1960, when Pip’s father, Theo, and Ned are beginning their architectural practice, and flailing about to come up with the design for their first commission – a house for Ned’s parents. Datz plays Lina this time around, a sassy and unstable Southern belle who makes flippant comments in the hallowed environs of the Plaza Hotel about oral contraceptives, angering her boyfriend Theo, who is big on appearances. Theo, it’s understood, is the genius of the partnership with Ned, the guy who represents the firm in public and comes up with the big ideas. Ned is the steady plodder who takes care of the details.
Or maybe not. By this point the audience knows what the characters, so far, do not – that Lina will marry Ned, not Theo; and Theo, in fact, will die young while Ned builds the firm into an international powerhouse. As it digs back in time, Three Days of Rain becomes something of a mystery, with little revelations that slowly unfold, and while the revelations are ultimately more about character than plot, I’m going to largely bypass them: It’s better for you to discover them on your own. Suffice it to say, the future doesn’t know the past, although it knows the consequences of the past; and the past doesn’t know the future, although it embraces the pleasures and importance of the decisions it makes in its present. Even the audience, which knows much more than either future or past, is left with large gaps. Well, that’s life. The play ends on a note of sweetness, with forebodings.
Without some subtlety in performance, it could all come out feeling a little schematic, but that’s not a problem here. Each of the actors needs to create characters who are different from their generational counterparts but also believably from the same bloodline, and the play’s stars pull it off neatly. Roiz’s happily free-floating Pip is a natural extension of Theo’s great-man bravado after the tires have come off of his ambitions. Mitchell’s angry, restless Walker and stuttering, inhibited Ned are more alike than either man realizes. And in both acts, Datz sinuously fills the gap between the two men, warmly buffering Pip and Walker in the first act and brashly prodding Ned and Theo in the second. It’s a lovely pair of performances, really: she is the quality of mercy, when it’s strained.
Scenic designer Scott Fyfe’s towering set fills the stage from top to bottom and side to side with all sorts of urban-loft detail, and as impressive as it is, I found myself wondering as I was watching the show how much it cost, which is not, ideally, the sort of thing I want to have crossing my mind. Three Days of Rain is ultimately about its characters, not its setting, and it could easily be performed on a stripped-down set. Still, I took delight in some of the touches, like the flashes of light from the windows of Manhattan buildings in the distance, giving a vivid sense of where this thing was going on. On Portland’s tight-budget theater scene, we don’t see this sort of visual gesture very often. (Fyfe also designed Center Stage’s monumental, vividly detailed Othello last season.) Enjoy it. It’s as solid as an architect-designed house.