Jackie Sherman plays Gabrielle York, and Jesse Lehman plays Gabriel Law in “When the Rain Stops Falling,” by Andrew Bovell, directed by Robert Bauer at Allens Lane Theater through May 18. Tickets at allenslane.org. (Photo by Tracey Long)

by Hugh Hunter

Now running at Allens Lane Theater, “When the Rain Stops Falling” by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell is a remarkable play. Though at first confusing, you might do well to heed the advice of director Robert Bauer: “Sit back…let the play unfold before you.”

If you do, “Rain” will reward. It is a mystery that begins in the future (2039) when Gabriel receives a phone call from his estranged son, Andrew. As Gabriel tell us, Andrew only wants to know what we all want to know: “Where do I come from?”

“Rain” answers Andrew’s question by exploring the family’s long history. An elliptical and non-linear approach to storytelling enhances the aura of mystery. By the time we finally meet Andrew and Gabriel again, we have our answers, but ironically they themselves remain in the dark.

“Rain” involves the interlocking fates of two families, spans four generations from 1959 to 2039 and bounces between London, England, and various sites in Australia. A horrific act lies at the heart of the story. (Sensitive to their origin as an English penal colony, Australian audiences might react differently to “Rain.”)

“Rain” jumps around in time and place. Often, activities of ancestral family members form a ghostly backdrop to the present action, and in the course of the drama we see young and old versions of the two female leads at different points in time.

But by Act Two you get used to the play’s conventions; scenes take on an entrancing power as the production gets convincing performances from its nine member cast: Eric Merlino, Julia Wise, Dante Zappala, Jesse Lehman, Carole Mancini, Jackie Sherman, Wayne Snover, Marjorie Goldman and Jeffrey Barg.

Playwright Bovell expands the scope of the play’s core question. The script is replete with symbolism and makes continuous allusions to our philosophical and geographical history. Across the generations, characters regularly repeat the same statements, ask the same questions.

The production underscores this hypnotic repetition with intermittent rainfall and haunting incidental music by Philip Glass (sound, Kim Pelle). The stage is a simple kitchen; in different eras characters will clean or re-paint the white woodwork in the hope of altering the family’s fate (set design, Robert Bauer).

So where does Andrew come from? When they finally meet at the end, Gabriel shows his son a bag of family heirlooms — a hat, a child’s sandal. They carry real meaning for us but mean nothing to the father and son as they finger them in silence. And then we remember how we ourselves stare stupidly at our own family memorabilia, how empty and vaguely guilty they may make us feel. And we are startled to realize that with grand irony this play has doubled back to include us.

As Gabriel says, Andrew only wants to know what everyone wants to know: Where do I come from? The Allens Lane production of “Rain” is a stunning theatrical achievement.

Allens Lane is located at Allens Lane near McCallum in West Mt. Airy. “When the Rain Stops Falling” will run through May 18. Reservations at 215-248-0546.