Forty days and 40 nights is only a drop in the bucket of the sodden near-century covered in Andrew Bovell’s compelling family drama. This tense tale weaves together the stories of four generations in a troubled family, from the 1950s through 2039. But the scenes aren’t played chronologically; rather, they skip back and forth through time, leaving the audience to piece together the family’s sad secrets and legacies of loss.
Even if Bovell had chosen to tell the story straight through, it would have been complicated. Without giving away any key plot points: A young, educated, somewhat reluctant housewife in 1950s London, Elizabeth (Kate Blumberg), grows increasingly disturbed as her husband Henry (Richard Topol) seems to be experiencing strange things, like realizing that he was inadvertently “pleasuring himself” on the train. When she suspects their young son Gabriel is in danger, a brokenhearted Elizabeth sends her husband away, setting the stage for a confrontation between herself grown old and embittered (played by a tight-lipped Mary Beth Hurt) and her resentful, uncomprehending adult son (Will Rogers). Gabriel’s search to learn more about his vanished father takes him to Australia, where he meets and falls in love with the coincidentally named Gabrielle (Susan Pourfar), with whom he conceives another Gabriel (Michael Siberry). And that’s barely the barest bones of the plot—but all the complexity somehow comes together onstage with dazzling clarity as the connections slowly start to shine through.
When the play opens, it’s 2039, and the youngest Gabriel, now not so young any more, is walking through torrential rain, wondering how he is going to face the son he abandoned years ago—and what he’s going to feed him—when a large fish falls from the sky. On this effectively bleak, gray, rain-soaked set, the unexpected gift seems more like an assault, and the dour scenes that follow don’t do much to lift the mood as the various plot lines of the story coalesce. The generations are juxtaposed, sometimes even sharing the set for a few moments, and the echoes—family sayings, catchphrases—through the years suggest how, too, the traumas of the earlier relatives haunt the younger ones in ways they can’t fully understand.
But there’s more than just bleakness to this thoughtfully directed (thanks to David Cromer, of “Our Town” fame) drama. There’s real love and sacrifice behind these often grim encounters, and the ensemble cast’s nuanced, underplayed performances make those connections evident. As the audience pieces together the action, so, too, our understanding of and sympathy for the characters grows, the more so as we see the patterns from which they’re trying to break free, and their conflicting needs to hide the horrors of the past and to come to terms with them. And like the play itself, however inauspicious the beginning may seem, what emerges is beautiful.