POOR ZELDA FITZGERALD! Her name is cast about all over film and television as quick 'n' lazy shorthand for "drunken, unhinged lady from below the Mason-Dixon line." When a character brings up old Zelda Fitzgerald—as one does in Portland Center Stage's new production of Three Days of Rain—it's almost always a universal signifier that bitches be crazy, and not, you know, bitches be writing underappreciated short stories.
This is too bad for Zelda Fitzgerald, but mostly it's too bad for us. Because it's symptomatic of a larger problem with the way mental illness is often framed in pop culture—with a depressing tendency to treat female psychological pain with jokey, offhand literary allusions (see: the legend of Zelda Fitzgerald), while men's struggles with mental illness are often given more care and reverence (see: F. Scott).
This irritating duality rears its insidious head in Richard Greenberg's 1997 play, Three Days of Rain. It's an interestingly structured play about male genius and female hysteria: Walker (Silas Weir Mitchell) and Nan Janeway (Lisa Datz), who've grown up in the shadow of their father's iconic architecture and their mother's madness, find themselves in one of those classic "Who gets the house?!" storylines after their father dies, and his version of the Robie House is left to his former business partner's son, now a bubbly TV star (the oh-so-classically-handsome Sasha Roiz). You can probably guess the rest: old wounds! Catharsis! Monologuin'!
I'm selling it short. The play is actually a tightly constructed universe, and the mirroring between its first and second acts is a revelatory feat of intricate plotting. But the way Greenberg writes Walker and Nan's mother, Lina (also played by Datz), as a needy Southern manic pixie to her husband's genius, is insulting at worst, and at best simply not a very interesting way to characterize a woman with mental illness. Even worse, Nan's written as the polar opposite of Lina—all straight lines and type A. The madwoman and the scold: Where we get two complex male leads, we get one actress playing two archetypes.
This is a damn shame, because Three Days of Rain has much to recommend it otherwise. The scale of Scott Fyfe's set design is impressive, situating a long-empty studio apartment where the play takes place within a convincing illusion of urban expanse with almost no negative space. And in a play that includes a major plot point involving (surprise!) rain, Diane Ferry Williams' lighting and Casi Pacilio's sound design convey exactly the right noisy, drenched city ambience without making Three Days of Rain all about these effects.
Much has been made of the play's stars, Mitchell and Roiz of television's Grimm, and the hype doesn't lie. They're just as good as the leads in Three Days of Rain as they are in their tertiary roles on Grimm—perhaps better, even, since they don't have hokey TV dialogue to clunk along with.
And that's what makes Three Days of Rain even more frustrating: Greenberg's characterization of Nan and Lina may be awfully weak, but his dialogue? Three Days of Rain was nominated for a Pulitzer for a reason. Greenberg's dialogue is some of the best. His characters sound human, and though he does go for the odd, snobby reference, he never slips into self-congratulatory mode like SOME clever playwrights (lookin' at you, Christopher Durang!), for which we should all sing his praises. I haven't seen a playwright in a long time imbue his characters' words with such tragicomic perfection, as when, in a moment of knowingly pathetic pride, Walker says, "I was just so exactly like people." Alas, the same cannot be said for all of the play's six characters.