BWW Reviews: Arizona Rose Theatre's RAINMAKER

The Rainmaker is a hopeful play. It's a simple, complicated, dreary, romantic story that is deeply American and wildly universal. As the 1956 film was readying for release, the playwright, N. Richard Nash, wrote:

"I tried to tell a simple story about droughts that happen to people, and about faith. I tried to say that belief in a forked stick is sweet in an eight-year-old but a grownup has to find his magic in the rites of daily living. I tried to protest that the dreamers who are fugitive from the world have too long pretended that they alone know what is beautiful; that there's beauty for those who stick around and have a good look at things. That there is beauty in reality, beauty in the balances of nature, no matter how brutal the imbalances; beauty in the togetherness of people which, sadly, must sometimes be measured by loneliness; beauty in seeing the fact and naming it the fact."

As a child, this critic saw the movie and thought it was a love story about an ugly woman and a big, loud man. As a 15-year-old theatre maniac, she saw a stage production of it and thought it was about a teenage boy coming of age and marking his territory in a house dominated by his older brother, father and sister. In 1982, she saw the production at the Arizona Theatre Company that featured Tony DeBruno as the older brother and walked away feeling the play was all about him. Today, this critic, now 53 years old, attended the Arizona Rose Theatre Company's modest production that has at its heart the story of a father of a "plain" daughter who just wants her to find happiness before he dies. That the play can have the Rashoman effect is to its credit - it's a richly written, glorious tale about a day in the life of people you'd overlook like so many bruised melons at the grocery store.

The Rainmaker takes place in a ranch house during a terrible drought that has devastated the herd owned by H.C. Curry (played by the perfectly cast, delightful Ron Kari) and managed by his son, Noah (Brandon Howell). Younger son, Jimmy (Michael Howell), works the ranch and their daughter and sister, Lizzie (Rachel Santay), is the domestic that runs the house. Lizzie's brothers and father take a trip into town to invite to supper the Sheriff's Deputy, an unhappily divorced man named File (Luke Howell). Lizzie has recently returned from a trip away, a husband-finding trip, that bore no fruit, and her all-male family thinks File may be her last chance. Near the end of the first act (there are three, with two intermissions), we meet Bill Starbuck (Ken Beider), who claims to be a rainmaker.

The Arizona Rose is a family theatre company in the tradition of the old west. It's charming and full of heart, and the production has a quality reminiscent of Cap'n Andy's productions on the Show Boat. One has the sense that the Howell family loves storytelling above all else, and devote their lives and resources to it through the medium of live theatre. The Howell brothers are easily identifiable - dominant genes there - and they work enthusiastically and comfortably together on stage. Jim Barnhart, who plays the exposition-happy Sheriff, has calm energy that plays easily off all the other actors. Ken Beider is an off-type Starbuck and challenges us to keep him in focus. Is he a magical rainmaker? Is he a con-man? Our perception shifts as he appears like a sleazy traveling salesman in one breath and then as a mensch who stands up for the underdog in the next. When he asks Lizzie to go with him on his adventures, we hope she will.

It is difficult for this critic to admit that Rachel Santay doesn't pull off the role of plain-Jane Lizzie. Santay is talented and hard-working and does every single thing demanded of the character except one, and she can't be blamed for it. She was born with the bones of a movie star, and no matter how much she tries without a stitch of makeup, she just can't convince us that anyone, anywhere, would ever look at her and see a woman destined to be an "old maid." If it's any consolation to Santay, Sigorney Weaver heard the same criticism when she appeared as Prudence in the original production of Christopher Durang's Beyond Therapy. Tuesday Weld tried her hand at Lizzie and received the same level of criticism. The character is too smart and confident in other ways to be played as awkward and insecure, so it seems to be a role meant for the Geraldine Pages and Martha Plimptons of this world - beautiful, yes, but not Helen of Troy material like Santay.

The unlikely "star" of this ensemble production is Ron Kari as the Curry patriarch. From his first moment to his last in the show, Kari's almost ethereal gravitas emanates. He is warm and watchable and we care about him and want to see him happy. That we are left with the impression, at the show's end, that he will die happy is the main reason we walk out of the theatre smiling.

Through February 10th at the Cabaret space, Temple of Music and Art. Details: http://www.arizonarose.cc/Home.html

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From This Author Jeanmarie Simpson

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