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Review: THE RAINMAKER at Hale Centre Theatre

On stage through May 8th

Review: THE RAINMAKER at Hale Centre Theatre

The impact on American theatre of N. Richard Nash's THE RAINMAKER, a mid-century, self-described Romantic Comedy, is primarily found in its formidable presence (exceeded only by OUR TOWN) in any and all monologue and scene-study books. The leads, "Lizzie" and "Starbuck", are ever present at auditions, duo-acting tournaments, and Intro to Acting courses in high schools and colleges coast-to-coast. Despite it's not uncommon presence in local theatre, I'd never seen the full play before attending Hale Centre Theatre's current production. The play is culturally dated most certainly but made enjoyable by some strong performances and deft staging by director Tim Dietlein.

The simplest description of THE RAINMAKER is "THE MUSIC MAN without the music." (It preceded Merideth Wilson's classic musical by three years.) It's a common formula. A smart, independent woman, considered almost a spinster by her peers, meets a charming grifter. He finds sincerity. She finds affection. Nash's version of the grifter-meets-spinster plotline is set in a drought-ridden, Depression era unnamed Western state. We get the plot essentials right away from Lizzie's father and two brothers. Lizzie has just returned from an extended stay in a larger town where she was meant to attend fairs and rodeos looking for a match. (She shares later her total disinterest in pandering for romantic attention and admits she spent most of the vacation time reading.) The three men are concerned Lizzie won't ever be married but agree it is a delicate conversation that none of them wants to have with her. Bobby Havens (as Lizzie's father), Justin Howell, and Jeff Deglow (as her brothers, Noah and Jimmy), contribute some of the strongest performances. They ride the hayseed comedy wagon well without devolving into an episode of Green Acres. Havens' underplaying contrasts well with Deglow's energy and impassioned indignance especially towards the proficient straight-man Howell.

The tentpole of this production is Katherine Stewart as Lizzie. She's the tentpole, the ropes, the spikes, and the fabric. A commodity of local theatre for sometime, she's as astute an actor as anyone in the Valley and THE RAINMAKER is right in her wheelhouse. Her performance is a clinic on technique-driven 20th century American realism. It's natural, nuanced, and the primary reason to see this play.

Aaron Seever as Starbuck gets the plot moving when he enters the scene declaring himself a "rainmaker" ready to end the drought for a cash fee. It's a capable performance with successful comic moments, but he never quite hits that Harold Hill level charm that the immoral-yet-lovable grifter needs to win over both Lizzie and us. It would seem we are meant to be equally torn between Starbuck and local divorcee File (played sincerely and likably by Richard Enriquez) as suitors for Lizzie, but I never rooted for Lizzie and Starbuck to develop their relationship. When Starbuck grabs her by the arm just thirty minutes after they've met, it is uncomfortable and I wanted the guy to leave her alone.

A simple, realistic play in the four-sided audience layout at Hale presents director Tim Dietlein the not-so-easy task of keeping the actors believably moving. He accomplishes a motivated, dynamic staging with a script that could too easily be kept sitting in chairs and sofas. He sets a brisk pace and the cast follows through.

The staging and performances aren't enough though to compensate for the extremely dated cultural values. I found myself thinking, "well, that's just how it was back then." early and often. That justification only works if the characters are eventually called out, which never happens. The point THE RAINMAKER is trying to make isn't that a woman can be equally fulfilled whether she's single or married. It's saying that a woman can be smart and independent and still find a good husband!

With a message so antithetical to cultural progression, what's kept THE RAINMAKER in the theatre canon? It can't just be auditions and acting classes, can it? It's 1954 premiere has it sharing a Broadway window with plays like Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN and THE CRUCIBLE, Tennessee Williams' A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, and Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. William Inge's Pulitzer Prize winning PICNIC, another romantic-drifter play, closed its 477 performance run just four months before THE RAINMAKER opened. The fathers of the American Theatre were unpacking their Greatest Hits while THE RAINMAKER slipped under the radar with a brief Broadway run of 125 performances and a long game that has the play being produced more frequently now and in the last few decades than any of those highly-regarded classics. Legendary New York Times' theatre critic Brooks Atkinson described THE RAINMAKER as "a popular comedy with no artistic pretensions". That quote turned me around somewhat. With plays covering senility, chronic interfamily deception, drug addiction, and McCarthyism all around him, Mr. Nash wasn't obliged to pile on. The world wants THE BIG BANG THEORY as much as it needs THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT.

All that considered, THE RAINMAKER can't really sit among its contemporaries, but if your taste is for traditional, light comedy on the stage and some unenlightened conversations and characters won't bother you, then this production might be the feathery transition back into live theatre you're looking for. THE RAINMAKER plays through May 8th in Gilbert, AZ.

Regional Awards

From This Author - Timothy Shawver

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