Six characters find an author

Now that I've enjoyed a sad, funny, subtle evening of family memories and unseen fates in WaterTower Theatre's sterling production of Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, I must express my gratitude by harassing producing director Gayle D. Pearson with the following plea. (Right about now, the sounds of collective eye-rolling in Addison have reached the shrieking crescendo of a race car rounding a sharp turn.) Why isn't your organization using two great resources--the full potential of the custom-designed, multifunctional theater originally called the Addison Centre Theatre, and Addison's hotel-motel tax supporting the arts--to give Dallas Theater Center a run for its money and create more smart, entertaining productions of new plays like Three Days of Rain? It's not like you have to compete with the Undermain for rights to shows about uterine paranoia and punk rock. Instead, you're headed in the opposite extreme with your next production, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and a thinly worn assortment of commercial fare. Musicals are wallet-padding crowd pleasers, yes, but Theatre Three, which is hobbling back to financial health after nearly dying a couple of times in the '90s, has managed regional premieres like Triumph of Love. If you're gonna serve tripe, at least get it from a fresh kill.

Of course, the exact identity of WaterTower Theatre is uncertain now--there are five finalists for the position of artistic director, with a decision to be announced in the spring--so this petitioning is a not-so-subtle shove in the direction of helping establish WaterTower as a national force of innovation a la the space Addison Centre Theatre had commissioned in 1991. The program for Three Days of Rain proudly boasts that WaterTower is one of only three regional theaters in the country to have acquired the rights to Greenberg's dramatic comedy about two siblings and their frustrated relationship with deceased parents. Don't stop now! Leave me sore, sweaty, and sated with new work. I am apparently not the only insatiable theatergoer in the area--there was a full house for director Kathryn Long's nimble supervision of three attractive actors, each of whom plays two characters. The audience laughed at what seemed to be all the right moments, and heartily applauded. And just think! Three Days of Rain hasn't even been turned into a movie yet (apparently, the criterion WaterTower powers have designated for season selections).

Director Long is one of the finalists for the WaterTower post, and here she has helped her actors gain the kind of thorough understanding of their characters that someone once called "finding the zipper," or the key, to the role that opens it up and allows the performers to step inside. In this case, each performer must wear two suits: All play both a parent and his or her child. Act One happens in the mid-'90s to the grown kids, while Act Two takes place in the '60s to the kids' parents before they procreated. Jack O'Donnell plays both a son named Walker, an appropriately named wanderer with a temper, and, rewinding to the '60s, Walker's father Ned, a shy, stuttering architect who works as one-half of a design team with aggressive, creative Theo (Bill Jenkins). In the '90s, Jenkins also plays Theo's son Pip, a complacent soap-opera actor who's not as smart but rather more secure than his longtime friend Walker ("being in a good mood does not make you a moron"). The woman who has shared Walker's and Pip's lives in the '90s is Nan (Candace Evans), Walker's sister and Pip's former lover. In the '60s act, she plays Lena, Nan and Walker's boozy Southern mom.

Picking the players from this program is a bit like those week-in-review soap-opera columns, but suffice to say Three Days of Rain concerns the gap (in some cases, a veritable grand canyon) between the assumptions we make about our parents' motives and the real reasons for their life choices. This play has been touted as a mystery that unravels over the course of the evening, and like so many mysteries, it begins on the day that a father's will is to be read. But there is really no grand revelation or conclusion--at least, nothing that you haven't figured out by the beginning of the second act.

The pleasure of Three Days of Rain is the journey, or, specifically, the hosts for that journey. The show expertly renders these people's states of being, more so than it does the conflicts between them. Walker is agitated because he can't figure out why his father was so uncommunicative; the fact that Ned left his most famous and beautiful house to Pip, Theo's son, chaps him even more. Meanwhile, both Walker and Nan are haunted by the insanity of their mother, Lina, who's still alive in the '90s but in an incoherent state. The play's title refers to a terse diary entry written by Ned when he first became intimate with Lina. The second act is rendered in gorgeously somber light effects by Howell Binkley, with dark, glowing dapples outside the windows where Ned and Theo work.

WaterTower's Three Days of Rain is another instructive lesson in the art of casting--a graceful tango between actor and role. Jack O'Donnell is charming as both shy guy Ned and abrasive lost soul Walker, although he seems less showy, ironically, when he's playing Ned, whose part requires stammering, stuttering, and hand movements in the struggle to express himself. I must say, Candace Evans' heavy Suh-thuhn accent as Lina was a bit of a controversial choice. Couple this with Lina's much-discussed insanity, and we have to force memories of Blanche DuBois out of our heads during her opening lines. But because Evans drives the accent, not vice versa, she manages to summon a unique, unobtrusive characterization. Bill Jenkins has whittled callowness down to a hard, sharp shape as Pip, and he manages to reverse course and appear tempestuously talented as Theo, who is the self-proclaimed "genius" half of the "genius and taste" team that is Theo and Ned.

The forecast calls for exciting theater at WaterTower, providing it does more strong stagings of new plays like Three Days of Rain. That gruesome pun will have been worth it if it can find the inspiration to fulfill higher ambitions than Chapter Two and Forever Plaid, two shows from 1998. Is that what the town of Addison spent $6 million to showcase? If so, then WaterTower must be one of the most expensive community theaters in the country.

Three Days of Rain runs through April 3. Call (972) 450-6232.

The late Norma Young, founder of Theatre Three, once said that the only way you could make a living in theater was by being able to do a little bit of everything, from carpentry to singing. At 22, SMU grad and Undermain associate Cameron Cobb is down with Norma on this one. He's a terrific actor (Uncle Bob, Therese Raquin), a composer (Straight Jacket and Tie, Wallpaper Psalm), a fight choreographer (Polaroid Stories), and, now, a playwright. Didymus is Cobb's retelling of the resurrection of Christ as a philosophical contest between two apostles: Didymus Thomas, who believes that faith must be rooted in the unseen, the intangible, and Peter, who thinks that the world can't handle that much work, and so Christ's body must be removed from the tomb after the crucifixion and hidden so that the resurrection will appear to have "really" happened. They eventually do steal the body, setting in motion a chain of conflicts that robs one man of his ability to believe.

Heady stuff for a guy who's been able to legally drink for only a year. Cobb, who describes himself as "the cliche: I'm spiritual but not religious," is an unpretentious charmer, tossing off references to Gnostic cults and Sanhedrins at the same time he's confessing that he got into theater for a pretty basic reason.

"A group of guys were sitting around talking about the reasons we'd chosen theater," he laughs. "And we were spinning philosophies and noble intentions. But eventually, it got down to 'There was this girl I liked in a play.' Some people pursue this noble profession called theater, and we booty-called it into being."

Although he's still young, Cobb's dedication to theater has lasted somewhat longer than the average booty call. His other plays include Commonwealth, which got a workshop production at last summer's Williamstown Theatre Festival and concerns a convergence of strangers at an accident ("Artaud wrote that the truest drama happens spontaneously when people have a car wreck," he says.), and Jarry's Tree, a play about racial attitudes that Cobb describes as "Harold Pinter smokes a joint with John O'Keefe." Meanwhile, Didymus is receiving its world premiere production at the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts courtesy of Ground Zero Theatre Company.

Director Kimberlyn Crowe has enticed three very talented Dallas actors--David Stroh, Greg Gormley, and Lyn Mathis--for the maiden voyage of a play that has roots in Cobb's readings and various observations.

"The official statement of the Jewish high priests shortly after Christ's burial was that the disciples had taken the body and destroyed it to make it look like a resurrection," Cobb says. "And I thought, well, what if they did? What would this kind of conspiracy have been like?

Cobb is well aware that Didymus may face resistance from non-Christians, who don't want to be preached at, and devout Christians, some of whom have already reacted angrily to this young upstart messing with one of the foundation stories of Western religion. He insists that the Christianity is merely a metaphorical device to tell a larger story, and that those who can resist stooping to dogma will see that its challenges are a reaffirmation of believing in something greater than yourself--whether it is Jesus, Allah, or art.

"Sheriden Thomas [SMU professor, Dallas actor, and director of New Theatre's upcoming Stonewall Jackson's House] pulled me aside in the hall after a reading one time and said, 'This play isn't about religion; it's about forgiving yourself,'" Cobb remembers. "And I was like, 'Uh-oh, she nailed it! This is supposed to be profound and difficult! I'm gonna have to hide the shit better!'"

Didymus opens April 1 and runs through April 17. Call (214) 827-5746.

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Jimmy Fowler