A helpful family tree is diagrammed in the printed program of "When the Rain Stops Falling." But I hope nobody reads it until after Andrew Bovell's altogether extraordinary drama has been allowed to weave its own dark, apocalyptically human mysteries at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
This is a riveting, all-the-lonely-people epic that follows generations of quiet desperation, back and forth, from England and Australia, from 1959 until 2039. For much of nearly two nonstop hours, it is possible to believe that the only connections between many of these nine people are the torrential rain and the huge swags of garbage bags that trap us all in a world of unrelenting storm clouds.
If this sounds depressing, forget I mentioned it. Bovell - the Australian playwright who, oddly enough, wrote the screenplay for "Strictly Ballroom" - has created a quietly spellbinding puzzle of a universe that is as stealthily thrilling and defiantly mystical as it is catastrophically melancholy.
And David Cromer - the brutally sensitive director of "Our Town" and "Brighton Beach Memoirs" - stages the American premiere with a huge unsentimental heart, a revolving disk with bits of furniture and a riveting cast of understated experts.
The images begin with people dashing under umbrellas. Seldom has onstage weather felt as scary-sad. An isolated man in the center begins to scream, and a huge fish falls from the sky. "I do not believe in God," says the man, one of several characters named Gabriel - yes. the patron saint of messengers. "I do not believe in miracles. I cannot explain this."
Back in his grimy room, this Gabriel, played with bare-boned acceptance by Michael Siberry, delivers a dazzling 10-minute monologue about life in 2039, when fish are rare delicacies and the American Empire is history.
Enter people from different times, always damp from the rain. We piece together parts of their stories, many about the irrationality of privilege and disaster. A father has left his family. A small boy has vanished. Young men are searching, and aging mothers are hardened. Mary Beth Hurt and Victoria Clark are especially riveting as women whose disappointments are as deep as buried secrets, but the entire cast honors the unforgiving style with urgency and wonder.
WHAT "When the Rain Stops Falling"
WHERE Newhouse Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan
INFO $80-$85, 212-239-6200, lct.org
BOTTOM LINE Extraordinary drama of apocalyptic flood and human mystery.