There is a ripped-from-the-headlines quality about Keith Huff's play A Steady Rain, which opened Sunday night at Balagula Theatre for a two-week run.
But what makes it a thoroughly engrossing evening of theater is the way it burrows way below the headlines and the buddy-cop, procedural-drama framework. The story is really set in the American home and workplace, and it raises vexing questions about the loyalties and obligations of friendship, love, fraternity and justice.
Denny and Joey are Chicago cops who have been friends since kindergarten, a relationship that is set up with a lot of towel-snapping humor at the beginning.
We quickly learn, however, that during his years as a Chicago police officer, Denny has constructed his own moral universe justifying bribes, violence and other not-by-the-book behavior to protect the city and right some of the injustices he thinks have been dealt him. At home, Denny is The Man, the provider to and protector of his family. All challengers will be dealt with swiftly and violently — even his wife.
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Joey, a bachelor, has his own demons: alcoholism and being in love with Denny's wife, Connie. But Joey's role here is to grapple with watching his friend's tragic free fall as the events of a few rainy summer days and nights spiral out of control. He finds it increasingly impossible to cover up and make excuses for Denny.
Louisville actors Clint Gill as Denny and Andy Pyle as Joey inhabit their characters so thoroughly that they and director Kathi E.B. Ellis make Huff's script more compelling than it is on paper.
An allusion to the case of cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is dropped in about halfway through the story. Denny has become embroiled in conflict with a pimp after getting involved with one of his prostitutes, leading to a tragic attack on Denny's home.
In the midst of dealing with that aftermath, Denny and Joey are called to investigate the case of a frightened, naked and drugged Vietnamese boy found in the streets. It mirrors the case of a boy who had escaped from Dahmer but was returned to him by investigating officers when Dahmer appeared and said the boy was a friend. That boy was murdered by Dahmer shortly after that incident, less than two months before Dahmer was arrested.
In the case of Joey and Denny, the incident itself is minor, at its time. Denny is quickly distracted when he sees someone he suspects was involved in shooting up his house, and he and Joey give the boy back to the Dahmer-esque character so Denny can pursue the man.
When the killer's capture hits the papers a few weeks later, Denny and Joey are implicated as the cops who gave the kid back to the murderer. The shattering of their lives becomes public.
A Steady Rain feels longer than its run time of two hours, 20 minutes, including intermission, in an oddly good way. It is that lengthening of time you experience in stressful situations when time seems to slow down, and you just want it to end because you have been so thoroughly drawn into this heartbreaking story.