Few plays from the 1950s hold up as well as L. Richard Nash’s folksy 1954 romance The Rainmaker. Those needing proof of the above need simply to head out to Santa Monica’s Edgemar Center For The Arts where Tanna Frederick and Robert Standley head the cast of director Jack Heller’s pitch-perfect revival of this ‘50s gem.
Not only does The Rainmaker not seem dated nearly sixty years later, it’s as funny and heartwarming as any play being premiered today, and despite its Great Depression timeframe, it might as well be taking place somewhere in Middle America circa 2013.
At lights up, Lizzie Curry (Frederick) has just come back from a week spent with relatives in the quest of a husband, an empty-handed return to the family homestead that has her despairing of ever finding someone who’ll appreciate the intelligent, plain-spoken, straight-speaking woman she is. H.C. (Steve Howard), her “Pop,” has been telling Lizzie since she was a little girl that she’s smart and beautiful. Kid brother Jimmy (Benjamin Chamberlain) loves his big sis so much that he’d do anything to help find her a beau. Only older brother Noah (David Garver) 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. Since 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 is 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 just when everyone has lost hope of ever seeing a drop of precipitation again, who should arrive but a man named Starbuck (Standley), 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 whole hundred bucks ($1500 today when adjusted for inflation) . “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 very much a comedy despite its dramatic moments, 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,
Her hair pulled back into quite possibly the tightest bun on record and her face wiped clean of every trace of makeup, Frederick vanishes inside Lizzie’s plain-Jane skin, giving us a woman whose hopes and dreams have evaporated like whatever moisture there once was on the parched earth around her. The indie film star, previously seen at the Edgemar in Henry Jaglom’s multiple Scenie-winning Just 45 Minutes From Broadway, gives us a heartbreaking real, three-dimensional Lizzie, from her spunk and grit to her refusal to be a flirtatious bubblehead (though she does do a hilariously over-the-top imitation of one) to her very real longing to fit in, to be the swan rather than the awkward duckling.
The men of Lizzie’s family are equally authentic, equally human, beginning with Howard’s wonderfully warm and wise 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.
Garver, Frederick’s love interest in Just 45 Minutes From Broadway, is Lizzie’s cynical older brother Noah this time round, a plain-spoken man for whom love means telling the truth, even if that truth will hurt to the core, and the marvelous Garver never lets us forget that Noah’s honesty, cruel as it may seem, comes from a place of love.
Completing the Curry household as Lizzie’s eager-beaver kid brother Jimmy is newcomer Chamberlain, giving one of the most exhilaratingly colorful comedic performances you’re likely to see all year, a joyous mix of exuberance, hot temper, and teenage testosterone that makes the dark-haired charmer one to watch.
Reprising the role he played in A Noise Within’s 2008 Rainmaker revival is the always excellent Roberts, who makes deputy sheriff File a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy whose pride keeps getting in the way of his heart. Though Roberts’ File might not match Starbuck in outward dazzle, the L.A. theater staple makes it easy to see why Lizzie would get all dolled-up upon learning that this fine man is a-comin’ to supper.
Ralph Guzzo’s impeccably-tuned cameo as File’s boss Sheriff Thomas is yet another winner in the all-around splendid cast.
Finally, there is Standley’s ultra-charismatic star-turn as Starbuck, saved for last (as he is in Nash’s by-order-of-appearance cast of characters) because after all the plain-spoken, plainly-dressed country folk who’ve come before him, Starbuck’s arrival at the Currys’ door is something akin to that moment in The Wizard Of Oz when black-and-white turns to Technicolor. The tall, dark, and handsome star of multiple Downey Civic Light Opera musicals proves that even without raising his voice in song, this is a leading man to be reckoned with, and if there’s any justice in the theater world, Standley’s next project ought to be 110 In The Shade, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s exquisite musical adaptation of The Rainmaker.
Not surprisingly for a Henry Jaglom production, The Rainmaker looks more like something you’d see on a major mid-sized theater stage than in a 99-seat house, the combined efforts of a design team entirely new to this reviewer. Scenic designer Christopher Stone makes maximum use of the Edgemar’s wide stage to feature a finely-appointed Curry living room centerstage, with an equally artfully rendered sheriff’s office and Curry farm tack room on either side, a design credit shared with prop master/set dresser Phi Tran and scenic painter Marine Walton. Juliet Klancher’s lighting is equally topnotch as is Noah Calvin’s sound design and his folksy, mood-setting original music. Costume designer Kelly Fluker gives the menfolk just the right weathered, sweat-stained farmwear and Lizzie precisely the non-nonsense dresses she’d wear on a daily basis with a deliberately god-awful frilly party dress thrown in for good measure.
Alexandra Guarnieri is producer. Sonya Naumann is assistant prop master. The Rainmaker is stage managed by Thomas Zoeschg. Robert Jensen is assistant stage manager.
As this Edgemar Center revival makes abundantly clear, L. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker hasn’t lost an iota of its humor, charm, and broad audience appeal since its 1954 debut. It’s that rarity, a comedy classic that conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats can find themselves cheering with identical whoops and hollers.
Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main Street, Santa Monica.
January 11, 2013
Photos: Ron Vignone