Encore Michigan

New work at Flint Rep mourns casualties of the opioid crisis

Review September 24, 2023 Bridgette Redman

FLINT, MI–Nothing complicates an already complicated relationship like death. Gone is any chance to make things right and what is left is often an inheritance of guilt, resentment, anger and regret.

In “Rain on Fire,” Michigan playwright Karen Saari explores not just grief and loss, but the further difficulties of addiction, the opioid crisis and economic struggles, all set in a small, Upper Peninsula town wracked by job loss. She infuses the story with realism and a sense of place that makes the story compelling and often uncomfortable.

Like the crisis itself, the play, directed by Ted Schneider doesn’t resolve neatly or have any pat, easy answers.

It opens with Marie Peterson, played by Sarah Price, attempting to eulogize her mother, speaking the words that might go into an obituary or tribute. She unflinchingly shares that her mother died from an opioid overdose and that they had a distant and difficult relationship. Her mother’s death comes a mere two years after the death of her father, another thing that Marie hasn’t fully processed.

The story further reveals that the mother, Lorraine—nicknamed Rain, had a final request. She wanted her daughter and her nephew, Caleb Peterson (played by Bello Paolo Pizzimenti), to turn her final poetic ode to the drugs that alleviated her pain into a song and sing it at her funeral. As they struggle to do so, they interact with their aunt, Nan (Karen Sheridan), her husband and their uncle, Eino (Mark Gmazel), Rain’s nurse-practitioner Gloria (Jazmine Kuyayki Broe) and Marie’s partner, Chuck (Kevin O’Callaghan).

Price creates a resentful daughter who is angry at the circumstances, angry at her mother and angry at the drugs that made her mother a stranger. It’s clear that the relationship was always challenging, and Price keeps the tension high in a script that doesn’t allow her to be likable as she has little grace for anyone in her life.

Pizzimenti contributes amazing physicality to a role in which the audience is left wondering how anyone can doubt that he is still an addict. What is lovely about his portrayal is that he creates a character who breaks stereotypes and is ultimately sympathetic—a gentle, lost soul who is in the grips of an addiction he can’t shake. He expertly handles the different beats of the character, skillfully moving the volume slider to create varying intensities and levels.

The ever-talented Sheridan shows her ability to give depth to a shallow character, to inhabit someone who is prejudiced and small-minded, but determined to make a life under difficult circumstances. It is enjoyable to watch her and Gmazel interact, to portray a long-standing relationship between people who have endured difficult circumstances but still do not know each other perhaps as well as they should. Gmazel galumphs onto the scene, giving Eino a good ol’ boy quality absent an easy redneck interpretation.

Broe and O’Callaghan play the outsiders who can see things that the family members cannot, even if their characters are unable to provide any meaningful direction or shift to those they care about. They provide the subtle shading their characters need to be established as outsiders, able to provide exposition and questioning that the audience needs to see inside the complex relationships.

Schneider rises to the challenging task of allowing humorous moments to exist in a script filled with pain. He orchestrates well the strains of quiet that are overwhelmed with the cacophony of argument and later weaves in the music composed by Danielle Anderson (Danielle Ate the Sandwich) to intensify an ending filled with twists, one that does not resolve all the issues, but reveals that the characters have a path forward, that they have learned something they did not know before, that they have a deeper understanding of what leads people to make the choices that they do—and of the despair that comes when dreams and choices are stripped away.

All master the appropriate accents, finding the variants of Midwestern strains from Yooper to new transplant to city dweller. Dialect Coach Lynnae Lehfeldt leads them in exploring the subtleties and ensuring that the speech accentuates and insinuates while not transforming the work into a play about accents.

As is often the case at Flint Rep, Shane Cinal’s scenic design is one of the stars of the show, especially when combined with Angela Hench’s props. Together the two fill the stage with a ramshackle, highly cluttered home and a littered yard filled with detritus.  Details like a Frisbee on the roof, old magazines on the coffee table and cinder blocks in the yard add a layer of authenticity to a very lived-in, small town home owned by a woman who has long lost the ability to care for her surroundings. Gaps in the roof and walls allow for a view into the family’s life while speaking to the skeletal remains of what was once a solid home filled with dreams. Turf grass and a working hose create a functional yard and nearly all the furnishings are mobile to establish different conversational scenes.

Mike Billings does an excellent job with the lighting design, keeping it realistic while still providing moody moments and believable transitions that move the audience through time. Sound designers Alex Grindey and Sonja Marquis create a soundtrack of crickets, frogs and effects that provide placemaking and contribute to the storytelling.

Saari’s “Rain on Fire” provides an unromantic, realistic picture of how addiction has altered the lives of people in small-town America. It shatters the stereotype that the drug problem is an urban one belonging to big cities and challenges head-on those who buy into racist myths about illegal drug sales. It is a needed conversation wrapped up in one about grief and lost dreams. While there are moments of humor and heart-touching revelations, “Rain on Fire” is a melancholy tale that offers no pathway to change. That journey is left to the audience to navigate.