By N. Richard Nash. Directed by Ron Reed. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Thursday, October 16. Continues until November 1
The Rainmaker is folk art: apparently naive, but beautiful and moving.
Playwright N. Richard Nash sets his 1954 script in the American Midwest during the ’30s. Farmer H.C. Curry and his sons, Noah and Jim, are intent on marrying off the boys’ 20-something sister, Lizzie, who, they fear, will become a “spinster”. Lizzie is bright, but she is also plain—at least that’s what Noah and Lizzie keep saying. The Currys and their neighbours are also in the clutches of a drought, which is so bad that their cattle are dying in the ditches. Then a charismatic drifter named Starbuck arrives and promises that for a hundred dollars, he’ll make it rain.
The plot is predictable. Besides Starbuck, who will obviously attempt to seduce Lizzie, File, the handsome, emotionally wounded deputy sheriff, is interested in her. So we know that by the end of the evening, the plain girl will blossom like a flower in a rain-spattered field.
And the characters are stock types who speak the play’s subtext. File, who is afraid of showing his feelings to Lizzie, confides to the sheriff about a failed marriage and a dead dog. The sheriff is onto the connection like a homespun therapist: “You think everyone’s going to run away or get run over?”
But there’s beauty in this simplicity, and it’s rooted in language, which the play uses in both florid and simple ways. Starbuck deals in images of the Golden Fleece and thunder on the mountains. But Lizzie reminds him that there are other things to dream of, “Dreams that come to a woman when she’s shining the silverware, or putting the moth flakes in the closet.…Like…like a man’s voice sayin’ Lizzie is my blue suit dressed?”
At the heart of the script is Starbuck’s statement that faith is about seeing white when your eyes tell you black. In other words, we can choose our reality, and beauty is always an option. This may sound simplistic, but it’s huge.
Persuasively, director Ron Reed and his company hold this material in an affectionate embrace. Ryan Scramstad is hilarious as the slow-witted Jim. Scramstad makes the guy as fresh and sweet as a new ear of corn and he gets his laughs by speaking his lines with utter sincerity. Andrew Wheeler’s H.C. is the salt of the earth and so full of affection for Lizzie that it’s heartbreaking. John Voth’s File is the most contained characterization of the evening, and a lovely case study in just how naturalistically this material can be played. And relative newcomer Pippa Johnstone impresses as Lizzie; the role is pivotal and the play’s naive style is difficult but Johnstone consistently makes emotional sense of it.
The trickiest role, of course, is Starbuck—the con man’s flimflam can make him look ridiculous—and from where I sat, actor Robert Salvador didn’t quite make it work. Salvador is a gifted guy and he establishes a heartfelt base line, but there were times when I felt that he was straining to create a larger-scale portrait than he could deliver. My guess is that Salvador’s true Starbuck is smaller and more eccentric, and that it has nothing to do with the heroics that, say, Burt Lancaster goes for in the 1956 film version.
Nothing gets terribly out of whack, though. For two-and-a-half hours, I was happy to be in the world of The Rainmaker.