Tennessee Williams called Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull his “favorite of all plays.” Williams loved it so much he wrote The Notebook of Trigorin, a “free adaptation” that turned the original inside-out. Where Chekhov uses indirection and nuance, Notebook floodlights everything. Emotions clamor, drama builds and bursts. The subtle Seagull becomes Theater Writ Large: in effect, a drama by Tennessee Williams.
Sybille Pearson (book) and Michael John Lachiusa (music and lyrics) do a similar turnabout with W. Somerset Maugham’s “Rain.” Where the short story percolates slowly toward a sudden, horrific conclusion, the new, freely adapted musical tells all from the start. Where Maugham suggests, Rain externalizes and explains. And in case anyone’s missing the point, it resorts to headlines, as when Louisa MacPhail looks straight at the audience and yells “WE ALL WANT NEW LIVES.”
The musical follows the story up to a point. When a case of measles hits their schooner, the Davidson’s and Macphail’s get stuck in Pago-Pago, possibly for “a fortnight of idleness.” The only lodging’s an old house with ragged mosquito nets in the “rainiest place in the Pacific.”
The couples share only one thing in common: they do not approve when a 27-ish woman, “plump and in a coarse fashion pretty” with “fat calves” and a “hoarse voice” (in Maugham’s version) plays “vulgar” tunes on the gramophone, imbibes strong spirits, and dances with the quartermaster. Sadie Thompson looks “rather fast” to the First Class travelers. And that “sluttish knot” in her hair? She must be a prostitute. Will she ply her trade here?
Soft-spoken Dr. Alec Macphail observes from afar. But his wife Louisa and Anna Davidson raise their noses high whenever they pass the harlot. Alfred Davidson, a brimstone-breathing missionary, has a stronger reaction: she is evil. He must save her soul; therefore “She’ll be starved and tortured...I want her to accept the punishment of man as a sacrifice to God.”
Writers of short stories study “Rain” — and its likely predecessor, Guy DeMaupassant’s “Boule de Suif” (“Ball of Fat”) — in microscopic detail. Both resemble watching a tree grow from above and below ground at the same time. Subtexts spread like roots. And the last two words of “Rain” — “He understood” — imply a dimly suspected alternative.
Most of what happens off stage in Maugham happens onstage in the musical. In his bar fight, which he probably lost in the story, Alfred Davidson matches Steven Segal’s demolition creds — or would, if the Old Globe’s fight choreography were more convincing. Davidson’s a sanctimonious thug; kindly Dr. Macphail turns out to be an alcoholic with PTSD who’s driving his wife more nuts than the incessant rain.
Social class divides the women in the story. Here, gender unites them. Except for Noi Noi, who has taught Scottish husband Kiwi the difference between love and war, the other three women are trapped like concentric circles in unbalanced relationships. Doubly incarcerated in the middle, Sadie will incite changes, even as Davidson vows to reform her.
The story can almost accommodate this emphasis, but the musical’s book goes overboard elsewhere. Rain must lead the musical leagues in backstory. Almost every character sings a long, biographical monologue. Here composer Michael John LaChiusa does some remarkable things. He turns each into a mini-song-cycle, shifting keys, tones, and attack with every turn.
Musically, they are tours de force. But the lyrics drag them down. They fill in needless details (Lake Michigan was cold that day), and explain, rather than feel, emotions. Act one has four “here’s my life story and how I felt” song monologues. And a good percentage of them are about the past, which makes for a static stage.
Act two lingers so long on Davidson’s attempt to convert Sadie, it’s tempting to shout, “All right, already!” Then, after two Big Dramatic Moments, a character snuffs the tension with a long, biographical monologue, followed by yet another. The musical obviously yearns to flesh out the characters. But this flesh needs a diet. Drama dissipates in a downpour of explanations.
If it didn’t swallow actors whole, Mark Wendland’s scenic design would be a marvel: a wall-less, two-and-a-half-floor frame house, with corrugated tin roofs and a sense of steep verticality. It swivels and, in Act two, splits and becomes a “house divided” for symbol-hunters. Russell H. Champs’s Expressionistic lighting relies on stark reds, blues, and burnt oranges when there’s already more than enough melodrama to go around, what with a rain effect misting overhead and drums throbbing in the background like a sore tooth.
Except for Sadie’s, which are too posh for Western Samoa and Iwelei, Honolulu’s red light district, Katherine Roth’s costumes have an appropriate, 1924 look.
The musical divides obsessed/repressed males from held-back females, and favors the latter. Performances have a different slant: everyone in the cast can sing, but the overall the acting’s as rigid as the dialogue.
Book by Sybille Pearson; music and lyrics, Michael John LaChiusa; based on the short story by W. Somerset Maugham
1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Old Globe Theatre
Directed by Barry Edelstein: cast: Eden Espinosa, Jared Zirilli, Elizabeth A. Davis, Betsy Morgan, Tally Sessions, Marie-France Arcilla, Jeremy Davis, Mike Sears, Rusty Ross; scenic design, Mark Wendland; costumes, Katherine Roth; lighting, Russell H. Champa; sound, Ken Travis; musical director, J. Oconer Navarro; movement, Patrick McCollum
Playing through May 1; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.