Review: `The Rainmaker’

ACT’s `Rainmaker’ shakes, rattles and pours
Two ½ stars Dusty and dreamy

You’ve got to hand it to American Conservatory Theater. When reviving a musty old relic like N. Richard Nash’s 1954 melodrama The Rainmaker, you need to something to shake it up, and having a 5.6 earthquake during the opening moments of opening night is one way to do that.

So maybe it wasn’t planned, but when the former Geary Theater (virtually destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake) started rumbling and swaying, and the stage lights started shaking, you couldn’t help thinking: God/the Universe/Oprah would never have done this during a David Mamet play.

All praise to actor Jack Willis, who, with the curtain only just raised, sat on the stage and rode out the earthquake like the pro that he is. And props to the audience as well for barely muttering a sound and agreeing as one that remaining seated for a play is far more important than panicking and running for cover.

Who knew The Rainmaker could be so exciting? We arrived expecting rain and got rattled. Ain’t theater grand?

It was a surprise to see Nash’s Rainmaker listed in the ACT season lineup. Isn’t this the same play that has become the dominion of community theaters far and wide? I’ve seen two local productions – one at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre and one at the California Conservatory Theatre – and both were just fine.

Seeing ACT’s sturdy, beautifully produced, Mark Rucker-directed version, I hoped maybe the play would reveal itself to be a true American classic. It didn’t.

The play is still the sweet, dusty crowd pleaser it’s always been, whether in the form of the 1956 Katharine Hepburn-Burt Lancaster movie or the 1963 musical (revived on Broadway earlier this year starring Audra McDonald).

There’s nothing wrong with pleasing a crowd, and the ACT audience did seem pleased on opening night. But in truth, The Rainmaker is the dehydrated version of The Music Man, which is the brassy version of every other story that aims to reward faith, inspire hope and make people feel life, no matter how ugly it is (or you are), is worth living.

Certainly, Rucker’s production is hampered by the traditional three-act format. With two intermissions, the steam is definitely out of the dramatic machine by Act 3, when Nash’s attempt at creating some O’Neill-ish, Moon for the Misbegotten dramatic romance between his spinster, Lizzie Curry (Rene Augesen) and the con-man, Starbuck (Geordie Johnson), fails to spark.

What the production does have going for it is a slick, efficient set (by Robert Mark Morgan), effective costumes (by Lydia Tanji) and sharp lighting (by Don Darnutzer), all of which allow Rucker’s excellent cast to warm up the play to near-dramatic heights.

Willis is the epitome of Western warmth and compassion as H.C. Curry, a single father to the unmarried Lizzie (Augesen’s usually blond locks are hidden beneath a mousy brown bun), stick-in-the-mud Noah (hey, where’s the ark, oh wait, that’s getting ahead of the story) and randy youth Jim.

Stephen Barker Turner as the prig brother and Alex Morf (a member of the ACT Master of Fine Arts Program’s Class of 2008) as the love-struck kid are terrific. Morf wrings all possible laughs from Jim’s prairie exuberance, which helps percolate the show’s 2 ½ hours considerably.

Rod Gnapp doesn’t have a whole lot to do as the sheriff (think Andy Griffith in Mayberry), and Anthony Fusco is a closed-off deputy (think Don Knotts with a soul) who eventually breaks through his shell and reaches out for Lizzie.

But not before Starbuck does more than reach. The metaphor of drought and a promise to make rain applies mainly to Lizzie’s love life, so when she gets “visited” by the con-man and finally becomes visible to the deputy, the rains ensue.

It’s all pretty pat – but sweet and nice and all that – and made all the more interesting by interesting actors.

And a final note about the final scene (if you don’t want to know how the show ends, avert your eyes). It’s nice to have a rain effect that looks like rain in the final moments of the show, but why do none of the actors get wet? It’s such a cop-out to let the skies open up and drench absolutely no one. Lizzie should be drenched for her curtain call, but the actors emerge bone dry. Talk about draining the metaphor.

For information about The Rainmaker, check out ACT’s newly revamped (and lovely) Web site.

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