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Great Plain

Lush Performances Languish in a Flat, Dry Rainmaker

Dry Heat: Kevin Isola and Katie MacNichol try to create a spark.

By John Barry | Posted 5/28/2003

The Rainmaker

Tim Vasen, director

Scott Bradley's set is one of the highlights of Center Stage's The Rainmaker. Although the play is set in the flatlands, something is clearly a little screwy. The stage is tilted at a 20-degree angle, giving the impression that the entire set, actors and all, is about to slide into the audience's laps. Rooms and buildings seem to pop out of the set itself--walls and furniture drop from the sky at one point.

Occupying this off-kilter stage is a family of ranchers and two lawmen who are determined to soldier through a devastating drought. As the play progresses, these denizens of the Dust Bowl take refuge in caricatures of the not-so-wild West. The older son, appropriately named Noah (Matthew Boston), keeps his head buried in the accounts, younger son Jimmy (Kevin Wheatley) lets his hormones do the talking, the assistant sheriff (Thomas M. Hammond) is a mysterious loner, his boss (Jeffrey Ware) is straight out of Andy Griffith, and Lizzie (Katie MacNichol) sits around sewing up the holes in everybody's blue jeans. Throughout, N. Richard Nash deconstructs this band of cowpokes and gunslingers with affectionate but incisive humor.

The plot moves quickly. At the Curry ranch, cattle are dropping like flies. Since they have too many mouths to feed, the father and his two sons are trying to find a way to get the somewhat reclusive Lizzie to find herself a man. She harbors a liking for File, a six-gun-toting deputy who seems to be a little on the shy side himself. But all these relationships seem to be stuck in neutral until Starbuck the Rainmaker (Kevin Isola) appears on the scene, complete with a divining rod and an offer: Give him $100, and he'll make it rain. The family's a little skeptical but decides to give the guy a chance.

Director Tim Vasen and casting director Judy Dennis deserve credit for picking out a septet of actors who vitalize a play that could easily become a little too toasty for its own good. While only MacNichol and Ware have worked at Center Stage before, the chemistry between these actors allows their characters to develop an edgy, sometimes explosive, affinity.

With such rich tensions coursing through the performance, though, one almost wishes that this cast had a more ambitious play to work with. The characters may sound like they're out of Tennessee Williams--interestingly, Vasen directed MacNichol in Center Stage's 1997 production of The Glass Menagerie--but that's not quite what Nash is going for. He wants things to come together in the end, and they do.

But the play reaches its peaks when things are still falling apart within the too tightly knit Curry family. In one particularly riveting moment, Noah tries to figure out what he's going to do with this out-of-towner who has designs on his sister. He picks up a gun and prepares to go out to the barn to shoot him, but suddenly finds himself confronted by everyone else in the family. He almost hands over the gun, then takes it back: At moments like these, we all know what each character is thinking, even when no one is speaking. At the risk of sounding dogmatic, that's good acting.

Nash gives us closure, but in this wacky world of cowboy love it's a little too neat. File and Starbuck are both after Lizzie, but in this production it's arguable that the most searing and constant attraction is between Noah and his sister. But that's as far as the brother-sister thing gets; the curtain's got to come down sometime. The talented cast and artistic team are willing to explore the darker side of The Rainmaker, but in the end it's a sentimental comedy. You may leave Nash's play with a tear in your eye or a smile in your heart, and if that's what you go to plays for, you'll like this one just fine.

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