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BWW Reviews: THE RAINMAKER at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre

N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker has been a part of our collective pop culture and theatrical canon for years and is probably best known because of the 1956 film version that starred Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster, which has cast its indelible shadow on every intervening stage production since its initial release. That being said, who could have everexpected the emotional wallop packed by the superb revival now onstage at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, directed by Sam Whited? Quietly and gracefully, the impact of The Rainmaker remains as potent as it has ever been and it is performed by a thoroughly committed cast of Barn veterans and newcomers all focused on the task at hand.

Nash's tale of a rancher's family in the Depression-era, drought-stricken American West , who are praying for rain almost as fervently as they seek divine intervention in their efforts to find a man for spinsterish daughter LizzieCurry, an intelligent though plain, young woman who is ahead of her time. Independent, forthright and outspoken, Lizzie (first played by Geraldine Page on Broadway in 1954) is warm and witty, surrounded by her father and two brothers who love her for who she is but who have hopes for a brighter future than the one ascribed by society for straight-talking  - and unmarried - women of a certain age.

Lizzie (played by Elizabeth Walsh) keeps house for her father H.C. (Lane Wright) and her two brothers Noah and Jimmy (Warren Gore and Daniel Hackman) on the family cattle ranch. Newly returned from a visit to relatives (who have a lot of unmarried sons, it seems) in hopes of finding a proper suitor, Lizzie copes with her family's disappointments while brandishing her wit and matter-of-fact nature that she clings to like a protective cloak, covering up her  own longing for romance and adventure.

Lizzie's man drought is mirrored in the lack of rain that causes cattle to die and crops to wither in the fields when, all of a sudden, her quiet existence is upended by the arrival of a flamboyant con man named Bill Starbuck (Bryce Conner) who promises to make rain and who, thanks to the machinations of H.C. and Jimmy, holds out for Lizzie the possibility of life less dreary and dusty. The two strangers - one a dreamer, the other grounded in reality - find a shared camaraderie that results in a sweetly conceived and artfully staged romantic tryst that will melt your heart.

Word of Starbuck's nefarious dealings across the prairie brings lawmen Thomas and File (John Mauldin and Flynt Foster) to the Curry ranch, seeking justice for all the people who've been duped by Starbuck's flights of fancy and unfulfilled promises. Just when it looks like Starbuck is to finally be done in by his duplicitous ways, File's long-hidden affections for Lizzie come into play.

Nash's script, which has such a timeless feel to it and yet somehow retains its period charm, presents the characters with a genuine truthfulness that one comes to expect of hardy Western stock, yet the Currys and their neighbors and friends seem anything but caricatures, particularly given the obvious care given them by Whited and his wonderfully cohesive ensemble of actors.

I must admit that the play's power can take you rather unawares, its simple yet very direct message a potent reminder of the power of live theater to transport and to transform. In fact, there was a moment during the performance reviewed in which Lane Wright, as H.C. Curry, implores his daughter to remain true to her sensible self, reminding her that "at least you've been asked, Lizzie. You've been asked." It evoked such an emotional reaction on my part that I was amazed by how moving I found it to be. Credit, therefore, goes to Nash for writing the lines, to director Whited for bringing it to the stage in a decisive yet creative way, and to the actors for breathing life into their stagebound characters.

Walsh, a younger and far prettier Lizzie than we've come to expect, gives a performance that is sweetly sentimental yet flinty and determined - the perfect recipe for a memorable Lizzie Curry, given the long list of fine actresses who've played her through the years. Walsh's pairing with Conner recalls the partnering of talented dancers to create a particularly moving pas de deux. The charming Conner is showy and slightly outrageous, perfectly capturing with Walsh the romantics underpinnings of his character.

Wright gives a pitch-perfect performance as Lizzie's rancher father and he is ideally cast as the gruff but lovable family figurehead, with Gore almost dastardly as his controlling son Noah, who runs the ranch and the family with an iron fist, and who redeems himself admirably in the play's final scenes. Hackman, returning to the Barn stage after his terrific performance as neo-Nazi Owen Musser in The Foreigner, shows us his splendid range as the likable Jimmy Curry, delivering what is probably the most fully realized characterization among this exceptional cast of actors. Hackman is a force to be reckoned with and his is a name you'll be hearing for years to come.

Foster plays File, the resolute lawman, with a certain plain-spoken earnestness that we've come to expect of our Western heroes and he charmingly reveals File's more romantic nature at a languid, leisurely pace. Mauldin confidently completes the cast as the town sheriff,  displaying good timing and a sense of fairplay while doing so.

Lighting design by Mary Jo Kilzer Weaver and Whited is golden-hued and warm, capturing the tone of the hot summer depicted onstage, while Jim Manning's setting provides the perfect backdrop for the play's action, with Debbie Kraski's props providing the necessary evocation of the times in which the play is set. And kudos, once again, to the Barn's remarkable costume designer Billy Ditty who proves his abilities in the proper fashion of the times.

  • The Rainmaker. By N. Richard Nash. Directed by Samuel Whited. Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, Nashville. Through June 11. For reservations, call (615) 646-9977 or visit the company website at www.dinnertheatre.com.


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