Mr. Nash’s self-described “romantic comedy in three acts” is a model of an effective well-made play. Exposition, character delineation and plot are all imparted with engaging precision. It “takes place in a western state on a summer day in time of a drought.”
In the 1930’s, the Curry family’s cattle farm is suffering due to the lack of rain. The widowed H.C. Curry is retired and his industrious and stern son Noah runs the business with help from his amiable younger brother Jimmy. They are unmarried as is their reserved yet spirited sister Lizzie who keeps house for the three men. Her situation is cause for concern as they don’t want her to end up as an old maid. She has just returned from a painfully contrived and unsuccessful expedition to another town to visit relatives who had ties to eligible men.
Mr. Curry and his sons pay a visit to the sheriff’s office to invite the melancholy Deputy Sheriff File to dinner to set him up with Lizzie. He claims to be a widower but everyone knows that he is really divorced as his wife left him for a school teacher six year earlier.
Meanwhile the charismatic but obviously larcenous Bill Starbuck who is wanted by the authorities for various cons in several states pops up at the Curry house brandishing a stick and promising to bring rain for $100. Initially disdainful, Lizzie becomes drawn to him. Mr. Curry emotionally encourages the involvement so that if she does remain a spinster she would have had at least one romantic encounter.
Will Lizzie end up with File or Starbuck? Will Starbuck bring rain? These are the questions that Nash answers in his poignant work that’s laced with suspense.
The blonde and thoughtful Fleur Alys Dobbins is captivating as Lizzie. Exhibiting a range of emotion worthy of a Chekhov heroine, Ms. Dobbins lightly conveys despair, feistiness and humor. When Dobbins lets down her hair we clearly see a profound transformation.
The soul of the production is Ken Trammell’s understated performance as Mr. Curry who erupts with feeling when worried about his daughter. With his low-key folksiness, mature features and sad eyes, the bald Mr. Tramell resembles a Walker Evans Depression-era photograph and his plaintive drawl completes his moving characterization.
Matthew Provenza’s Starbuck is an ingratiating and full-blooded portrait of a lovable rogue that everyone can’t help feeling sorry for. Mr. Provenza is delightfully unrestrained vocally and physically as he sets out to charm.
As Noah, the brooding Benjamin Jones perfectly captures the character’s well-meaning authoritarianism. Mr. Jones’ delivery of a speech declaring Lizzie’s plainness is shattering.
The hotheaded and good-natured Jimmy is played by the appealing Sean Cleary with boyish verve.
Taciturn Jim E. Chandler affectively portrays File’s moroseness and burgeoning reawakening. Mr. Chandler’s changing his mind about adopting a dog is a rich moment of anguish.
His eyeglasses perched over his nose and speaking slowly, Jim Haines looks and sounds like a real sheriff. Mr. Haines creates a vivid figure of moral strength during his brief but pivotal appearances.
Director Peter Dobbins’ masterful pacing is leisurely with appropriate force. Mr. Dobbin’s physical staging in concert with scenic designer Sheryl Liu is of inspired resourcefulness.
The stage is set with period living and dining room furniture, there’s a staircase and a front door. Hanging over it all is a swirling curved wooden structure indicating the roof. The residence’s desk, chair and phone become the setting for the sheriff’s office eschewing scenery changes and making for swift transitions. This cleverness is amplified by scenes in a barn where actors carry and set up some bales of hay downstage and then we’re there.
Michael Abrams’ crisp lighting design evokes the dusty sheen of the era and locale. Vintage country music recordings and effects are wonderfully realized by Caroline Eng’s sound design.
Jeans, vests, cowboy boots, rustic dresses and Starbuck’s bold reddish- orange shirt are authentic components of Danica Martino’s exceptional costume design.
Starring Geraldine Page as Lizzie and Darren McGavin as Starbuck, the original 1954 Broadway production of The Rainmaker only ran 125 performances. Katharine Hepburn was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for the 1956 film adaptation that co-starred Burt Lancaster as Starbuck. It was turned into the 1963 Broadway musical 110 in the Shade. The play and the musical have been revived on Broadway and there was a 1982 television version with Tuesday Weld and Tommy Lee Jones.
This enchanting production demonstrates The Rainmaker’s enduring resonance.
The Rainmaker (through May 20, 2018)
Blackfriars Repertory Theatre and The Storm Theatre Company
The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture
Black Box Theater, 18 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.stormtheatre.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission