‘A Hatful of Rain’ — David Boreanaz as ‘Johnny’

“Junkie” was a scary label in the ’50s, when “A Hatful of Rain” premiered in New York City. Just the mention of the word, usually in a whisper, was enough to evoke demons, danger, shame and loathing.

In “Hatful,” when Johnny says the word in a writhing confession, it’s supposed to rip the lid off a problem that has been ignored for years–which indeed was the effect in 1955 when this was one of the first dramas to explore drug addiction.

These days, we may not be more tolerant but we are more desensitized; as a nation, we still don’t like dope but its familiarity has left many of us blase. To a modern audience, Michael V. Gazzo’s play can seem dated, a throwback. But that doesn’t stop the Ensemble Theatre’s revival from drawing us in.

Director Roosevelt Blankenship Jr. has decided against updating the story of Johnny, a war hero who becomes hooked and threatens his family’s stability. There is no contemporary street garb, no talk of crackheads.

By sticking with the ’50s feel, he has given us a period piece; he and his cast are offering the type of melodrama (i.e. often overheated) that marked much of the consciousness-raising theater of its time. This staging is likewise fidgety, hyperbolic and quaint, but it also is appealingly vivid.

We first meet Johnny as he is having dinner with his wife, Celia, and his father. There is tension around the table, which tells us something about the uneasy relationships shared there, especially between father and son. As it becomes clear that Johnny is an addict, the struggles intensify.

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The only person who knows about Johnny is Polo, his younger brother. Before the play ends, everybody finds out: It’s difficult keeping this sort of thing quiet, especially when your pusher shows up, ready to kill you over the money you owe. And that’s just part of Johnny’s problem: He needs a fix, and the cops have shut down the local drug trade.

Watching Johnny descend is disturbing, mainly because David Boreanaz is so adept at conveying the character’s desperation. While hardly an understated performance–Boreanaz twitches and shakes like all the junkies we’ve ever seen in the movies–it is an affecting one. Boreanaz seems in genuine pain.

There are solid supporting performances. Paul Barbosa projects the goodness in Polo and Wisconsin Sturm reveals Celia’s confusion and love. There is substance to these characterizations. But Paul Connelly doesn’t show much more than anger as Johnny’s father.

Kevin Darne, Arturo M. Ransom and James Manley Green are edgy and frightening as the thugs who come to collect Johnny’s debts and Autumn Hafenfeld makes a brief but amusing appearance as a stoned socialite slumming in Johnny’s neighborhood.

The Ensemble Theatre, a tiny playhouse obviously working on a small budget, also scores with the set, which Blankenship designed. Johnny’s tenement apartment is sad and worn, much like the people who live there.