There aren’t many plays from the 1950s that hold up as well as L. Richard Nash’s 1954 folksy romance The Rainmaker. Not only does The Rainmaker not seem dated, it’s as funny and heartwarming as any play being premiered today, and despite its 1950s Midwest setting, it might as well be taking place somewhere in middle America circa 2008. As the second production of A Noise Within’s “Season Of Awakenings,” The Rainmaker is sure to charm audiences of all ages.

Some may know The Rainmaker from its 1955 film adaptation, which starred Burt Lancaster as Starbuck, the con artist who goes from town to town hoodwinking upstanding citizens of their hard-earned cash, and Katharine Hepburn as Lizzie, the “old maid” whose heart he melts. More recently, Nash’s play became the Broadway musical 110 In The Shade, revived splendidly at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2004 and on Broadway last year.

A Noise Within takes us back to Nash’s original play and I’m pleased to report that “110 In The Shade Minus Songs” stands up beautifully, especially in a production as winning as this one.

Bridget Flanery, hair pulled back in a French twist and face devoid of makeup, is Lizzie Curry, just returned from a week spent with relatives in the quest of a husband, back home empty-handed and despairing of ever finding someone who’ll appreciate the intelligent, plain spoken, straight-speaking woman she is. H.C. (Mitchell Edmonds), her “Pop,” has been telling Lizzie since she was a little girl that she’s smart and beautiful.  Kid brother Jimmy (Ross Hellwig) loves his big sis so much that he’d do anything to help find her a beau.  Only older brother Noah (Steve Weingartner) sees Lizzie as he believes she really is—a plain girl that no one will come to on a white horse and snatch up in his arms and marry. As Lizzie always seems to say and do exactly the wrong thing when she’s with a man, this still young woman’s self esteem is so low that you can imagine which family member she believes.

The local deputy Sherriff, File (Scott Roberts), seems the most likely beau for Lizzie, but he’s been burned by love (the so-called “widower” is in fact a divorcé whose wife walked out on him), and not about to be hurt again, or even to accept an invitation to dine with the Currys.

The Rainmaker unfolds over the course of a single hot summer day and night in a western state in the middle of a long and demoralizing drought.  If ever there was a time for a miracle, this is that time, and David O’s original background music hints that some magic may just be in the air.

Just when everyone has lost hope of ever seeing a drop of precipitation again, who should arrive but a man named Starbuck (Bo Foxworth), promising rain, for a mere 100 dollars.

Noah of course believes not a word of Starbuck’s promises, Jimmy is eager to give it a try, and Lizzie is the most skeptical of all. H.C., however, pays Starbuck the money, in five-dollar bills. “You’re a liar and a con man,” he tells Starbuck, “but I’m going to write it as a gamble. I’ve lost more’n that in poker on a Saturday night.”

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that Lizzie will eventually melt under Starbuck’s spell.  Still, there are surprises to be had and discoveries to be made, both by the audience and by the characters in the play.

Nash’s dialog is as fresh today as ever, and though more a comedy than a drama, The Rainmaker is a play without a single joke or one-liner. Every laugh (and there are many) comes from character and situation. Rarely has there been a comedy which offers its actors such real characters to play, and under the direction of Andrew J. Traister, the entire cast give absolutely wonderful performances.

This is the first time I’ve seen Traister’s directorial work, and it is impressive indeed. His actors hit just the right notes, getting laughs without ever playing for them.

By contemporary standards, the lovely Flanery seems more than a tad young to be worried about ending up an old maid, but things were different in the 50s, and Lizzie’s fears have more to do with her family’s reactions to her incipient spinsterhood than with her real chronological age. Flannery shows us Lizzie’s spunk, her refusal to be a flirtatious bubblehead (even if that would mean getting the guy), and at the same time her very real longing to fit in, to be the swan rather than the awkward duck. When she lets her hair down, as we know she will, and her guard as well, the effect is magical.

Foxworth makes for a dynamic and charismatic Starbuck. The actor’s work in ANW’s Picnic showed off his leading man credentials, however he has also proven himself an outstanding character actor, vanishing into the roles of Touchstone in As You Like It and Trinculo in The Tempest.  His Starbuck is a bit of both, handsome yet weather-beaten, with a gleam in his eyes that’s a bit like madness.

The excellent Roberts completes the play’s romantic triangle as deputy sheriff File.  Taller and arguably more handsome than Starbuck, File has everything going for himself with Lizzie except self-confidence, and it’s easy to see Lizzie would rush right into his strong arms if only he’d just ask.

Edmonds is warm and wonderful as HC, a man whom life may not always have treated well, but one who retains his faith in his fellow man, even a swindler like Starbuck, even a “plain Jane” like Lizzie. Weingartner, a younger Robert Duvall, is the perfect counterpoint to Edmond as the cynical Noah, for whom love means telling the truth, even if that truth will hurt to the core. As Sheriff Thomas, Leonard Kelly-Young brings warmth and humor to the role, and a devilish twinkle in the eye.  Finally, making an impressive A Noise Within debut is the very winning Hellwig, stealing every scene he’s in as Jimmy, Lizzie’s eager beaver of a kid brother. Hellwig’s Jimmy is just so charming and enthusiastic (and good-looking) that it’s easy to see why a girl like Snookie might give him her little red hat. (You’ll understand after you’ve seen the play.)

James P. Taylor deserves highest marks for his lovely set design.  Upstage is the Curry kitchen, just what one would expect in a Midwest farm town.  Downstage is the living room, which transforms itself (with a quick flip-flopping of sofa and desk) into the sheriff’s office, and later into the farm’s tack room.  Taylor’s lighting is a perfect complement to his set, the kitchen walls vanishing during dimly lit scene changes to reveal the distant skyline. For romantic scenes in the tack room, real moonlight appears to be shining in from unseen windows, and stars light the sky above the Curry rooftop, with night sounds providing the perfect backdrop, thanks to sound designer Rachel Myles. Julie Keen’s sweat-stained costumes are exactly what the Currys would wear, as is Starbuck’s slightly worn bright blue cowboy shirt, and Lizzie’s pretty but simple party dress has just the right satiny shine.

Though it’s for plays by Shakespeare and Moliere and Ibsen and other classical playwrights that A Noise Within is most famous, it’s their contemporary classics, works by Arthur Miller, William Inge, and Tennessee Williams, that I most eagerly await each season. Happily, ANW’s terrific revival of Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker is one of their best.

A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
October 22, 2008
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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