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A bachelor lawman mending his own shirt, a plain heroine who becomes beautiful when she lets down her hair, a family that greets each morning with the aroma of frying eggs and complaints about Dad’s cooking, a lonesome Western guitar that’s not playing the Brokeback theme—I know, I know, there are plenty of perfectly good reasons that homespun Americana is not much celebrated in theater these days, but I suggest you forget them for a couple of hours and revel in Arena Stage’s warmly comic revival of The Rainmaker. It may not turn you into a born-again red-stater, but it’ll get you in the mood for spring.
N. Richard Nash’s romantic comedy—about a family ranch plagued by meteorological and emotional drought and the con man who offers to cure both afflictions—is not, let’s note, a particularly distinguished play. It ran for three-and-a-half months on Broadway in 1954 and is remembered today chiefly as source material for the 1963 musical 110 in the Shade (which ran about six months longer), and also for an eponymous 1956 movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster. Both adaptations trimmed the script substantially to make the central figures more central, so it’s intriguing to watch the subsidiary characters emerge from the background in Lisa Peterson’s appealingly snappy Arena staging.
They have plenty of time to do so, as the plot of this romantic comedy is mostly concerned with delaying any real possibility of romance. Leading lady Lizzie Curry (Johanna Day, as earthy as a freshly plowed field) is the sort of dynamo who scares men off because she’s smart and who wouldn’t fawn and simper to trap a suitor even if one were brave enough to stick around. Her stern but adoring father (William Parry) has raised her to be as self-sufficient as her two brothers and is now wondering if that was the right approach. Her older brother Noah (Graham Winton) is convinced it wasn’t. He sees people as figures on life’s ledger, and with a six-month drought wreaking havoc on the ranch’s finances, his unmarried sister strikes him as so much red ink in the family accounts. Dim but adorable younger brother Jim (Ben Fox) is more easygoing, his thought processes all but overwhelmed by a flirtation he’s carrying on with a girl in a little red hat. Still, like the rest of the Curry family, he’d love to see Lizzie married off. Won’t be easy, though, as she’s long since intimidated all the locals. The clan’s last, best hope is that a relatively recent arrival in town—a nebbishy sheriff’s deputy named File (Frank Wood)—can somehow be persuaded to come out to the ranch for dinner so she can seduce him with her cooking. Rain, frankly, seems more likely.
Enter an eccentric stranger who claims he can conjure up a downpour for $100. Lizzie takes such an instant dislike to him that it’s obvious sparks will fly between them even if lightning doesn’t. And while Michael Laurence’s gangly, goofy Bill Starbuck isn’t fooling anyone with chatter about magnetizing occlusions in the sky, what matter specifics when you’re peddling hope to the hopeless? The rainmaker tells them to believe in miracles, and before long, the whole Curry family is behaving like idiots, the law is closing in, and true believers are swearing they detect wisps of white in a clear blue Western sky.
The playwright has provided most of his characters with a single characteristic to hammer home—one’s all business, another’s all enthusiasm, a third’s all hope—but the performers find enough variations on the themes they’ve been handed to last them all evening. Fox is so impishly guileless in his pursuit of that little red hat, and his endorsement of romance for his sister, that, by intermission, fully half the opening-night crowd seemed prepared to take him home for a cuddle.
On the spare, open stage that designer Michael Yeargan has outfitted with just a few sticks of weather-beaten furniture (including a nifty spartan table that morphs into a cluttered desk in seconds), Peterson gives the cast persuasive physical ways to express emotions for which Nash hasn’t always given them words. She plays with space and distance the way a choreographer would, sending a buoyant Jim ricocheting from one corner of the space to another as his stalwart older brother stands motionless or having the title character whirl a staff ’round his head as he describes the conjuring of tempests like some Prospero of the plains. At one point, the director has Lizzie and File all but diagram the stages of their relationship by criss-crossing a painted diagonal on the floor. If there’s been cleverer use of the Fichandler’s in-the-round space in the last few seasons, I’ve not seen it.
Still, for all the graceful, evocative work the company’s doing, Rainmaker remains a stock romantic comedy in which hope trumps cynicism. It’s sturdy and funny but never more than pleasantly engaging, and at the opening, when the pace slackened on occasion, I did find myself wondering whether nontraditional casting might enlarge the story a bit. Arena hasn’t quite abandoned the cross-culturalism that a few years ago made a truly global village of Our Town, but the company often subscribes to early-20th-century conventions in casting early-20th-century plays. And in this case, more provocative choices—a Native American rainmaker, say, or a black Curry clan—might have helped make the evening seem to be about something more than one family’s inability to imagine a happy future for an unmarried daughter, as reflected by the commercial theater of the ’50s.
For now at least, it’s a moot point. Arena’s Rainmaker is a sweetly nostalgic evening, much as it no doubt was when it first charmed audiences a half-century ago. In an age when con men work their schemes at press conferences, cynicism runs rampant, and hope seems as elusive as ever, perhaps that’s miracle enough.CP