You’d think that a play that ran a mere 125 performances on Broadway way back in 1954 would have faded into almost instant obscurity. Not so with L. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker, which is doing just fine and dandy nearly sixty years later, as The Old Globe’s captivating, innovative revival makes abundantly clear.

The_Rainmaker15_print Not only does The Rainmaker not seem dated nearly sixty years after its Broadway debut, it’s as funny and heartwarming as any play being premiered today, and despite its Great Depression time frame, it might as well be taking place somewhere in Middle America circa 2013.

At the lights up on the Curry farm somewhere out west in Depression-era America, Lizzie Curry (Danielle Skraastad) has just returned 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. (John Judd), her “Pop,” has been telling Lizzie since she was a little girl that she’s smart and beautiful. Kid brother Jimmy (Kyle Harris) loves his big sis so much that he’d do anything to help find her a beau. Only older brother Noah (Peter Douglas) 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_Rainmaker21_print The local deputy Sherriff, File (Tug Coker), 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 (Gbenga Akinnagbe), promising rain for a mere 100 dollars.

The_Rainmaker13_print 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, and under Maria Mileaf’s polished direction, the entire Curry clan and the play’s two law enforcement officers do inspired, thoroughly believable work.

The_Rainmaker11_print Skraastad’s Lizzie is the evening’s undisputed star, a feisty young woman whose repressed longings are so raw and burning, she seems about to burst with them at any time. Skraastad can have you laughing one minute at her side-splitting mimicry of beautiful-but-dumb Lily Ann Beasley and then wiping away tears at her response to H.C.’s “You’re afraid of bein’ beautiful” with an anguished “I’m afraid to think I am when I know I’m not!” And just wait till Lizzie lets her hair down and relish Skraastad’s palpable joy at being able to toss her luxurious mane this way and that. Like this reviewer, you may have seen a number of Lizzie Currys before, but Skraastad makes her feel brand new.

A fine and folksy Judd gives us a warm, wise H.C. who’s steadfastly unwilling to give up on his Lizzie just yet. An equally terrific Douglas makes it clear that Noah’s determination to make his sister give up her impossible hopes and dreams comes from a place of love. As for Harris, there’s no more appealing young New York-based actor than the triple-threat star of the National Tour of West Side Story and last year’s Old Globe musical adaptation of A Room With A View, his kid brother Jimmy a boundless tornado of teenage joie de vivre and spunk that deserves his own spin-off.

The_Rainmaker20_print As File, the statuesque Coker (who played Larry Bird on Broadway last year) recalls film giants James Stewart and Henry Fonda, an all-American good guy who lets stubbornness get in the way of his happiness and who remains blissfully clueless to his tall, dark, and handsome appeal. Herbert Siguenza (of Culture Clash fame) couldn’t be more delightful in his brief scenes as Sheriff Thomas.

Setting the Old Globe revival apart from productions which have preceded it is the rather revolutionary casting as Starbuck of African-American Akinnagbe, a gifted young actor whose dynamic presence in this Rainmaker has both its pluses and minuses given the play’s time frame and setting. Having a black Starbuck certainly ups the would-be rainmaker’s status as both outsider and exotic presence among these white-bread (and white-bred) Midwesterners, factors that are certainly part of playwright Nash’s original vision. On the other hand, this non-traditional casting does require a suspension of disbelief which runs counter to the otherwise utter credibility of the entirely real (and ordinary) universe Nash has created.

The_Rainmaker17_print Scenic designer Neil Patel has created a world in which burning sun, pancake-flat plains, and a resolutely immobile windmill provide an ever-present backdrop to the Curry farm and other assorted locales, a design which only a theater of The Old Globe’s means could reproduce on the large Donald and Darlene Shiley stage. Katherine Roth’s homespun costumes, Japhy Weideman’s vivid lighting, and Bart Fasbender’s crisp sound complete a world-class design package. Additional kudos go to vocal and dialect coach Ryan Bettie Scrimger and to fight director George Yé, who choreographs a particularly authentic-looking bit of fisticuffs.

Monica A. Cuoco is stage manager and Tarin Hurstell assistant stage manager. Also assisting with the production are assistant director Jessica Bird, assistant scenic designer Sean Fanning, associate costume designer Charlotte Devaux, assistant lighting designer Jason Bieber, and stage management interns Meredith O’Gwynn and Sonja Thorson.

Despite its somewhat problematic (albeit laudable) introduction of an interracial aspect to The Rainmaker’s classic love story, The Old Globe’s generally splendid 21st Century revival of L. Richard Nash’s mid-20th Century classic makes magic down San Diego way.

Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
July 29, 2013
Photos: Jim Cox

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