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Chicago by John Olson

The Rainmaker
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

Also see John's review of The March

The Rainmaker
Matthew Keffer and
Anna Hammonds

In a Broadway season that included new plays by Tennessee Williams and William Inge, N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker was very much a product of mid-20th century American realism, though it's never been regarded as a play ranking up there with the classics of Williams, Inge and Arthur Miller. At first glance, this accessible and romantic comedy-drama about a rural spinster romanced by a con man in a drought-stricken American western town in or around the 1920s may lack the gravitas of a Crucible, Streetcar Named Desire or Come Back, Little Sheba, but it was precisely Nash's point in The Rainmaker that the stakes of finding a life partner with whom one could establish a normal and supportive routine were in fact quite high. Though Nash's play is romantic and fanciful in the way the con man saves the spinster from loneliness, his characters are grounded in reality. They're full-bodied and flawed people in the best traditions of the era. Nash carefully made the case for plausibility if not probability in telling his charming modern fairy tale, all the while arguing the reasons for believing that small miracles happen. We believe Nash's story because he believes in his characters and their struggles. This production directed by Stephen M. Genovese brings them to life with the same perfect balance found in Nash's script, finding importance in the challenges of these characters but without ever overstating them.

Genovese and his excellent cast deliver nuanced performances that are nearly perfect in the way they communicate the subtexts of these mostly reserved westerners who struggle between the daily travails of getting by and allowing themselves to visualize better things. The Curry family splits along this fault. Patriarch H.C., a widower, is in the dreamer camp, a point Genovese underscores by having him play a guitar in his quieter moments. H.C. is really at the center of the play as it's both his acknowledgement of Lizzie's limited prospects and his stubborn hope for something better for her that lead him to hire the rainmaker Bill Starbuck to bring rain to their region. Robert Frankel makes a wonderfully warm and sensitive H.C.; gentle, yet firm with his family when necessary. He's a most solid rock on which Genovese bases his telling of the story.

The responsibilities for running the ranch have fallen to elder son Noah, and that has given Noah license to be brutally honest with his family in matters emotional as well as financial. He delivers some of the harshest truths regarding Lizzie and her prospects. As Noah, Daniel Gilbert succeeds in keeping the elder son a likeable figure even as he sees himself compelled to deliver some "tough love." Lizzie is somewhere between H.C. and Noah—realistic about her own prospects, yet unwilling to give up on her hope for a loving husband. She's played here by Anna Hammonds with a blend of intelligence and spunk that convince us that Lizzie is actually a real catch. Hammonds shows Lizzie's moments of insecurity, but her Lizzie eschews self-pity. She and we know she's smart and special, and suspect she's maybe too good for most of the men in the town of Three Points. The one man in town who needs more than the silly sashaying the local girls display to attract men is the divorced deputy sheriff File, whom Thad Anzur plays with great sensitivity and subtlety. In keeping with his position as law enforcer, File has to appear strong and in control, yet he is deeply lonely and damaged by the divorced which he tries to keep a secret. Anzur gives us all this. As the younger Curry son, Jimmy, Nate Santana is exquisitely clueless. Well intentioned while trying to help Lizzie find a man, Jimmy's na´ve inability to read situations keeps him saying, as H.C. puts it, "smart things at the wrong time." Russell Alan Rowe provides some additional wise laughs as File's boss, the Sheriff.

Pretty good, but less than perfect is Matthew Keffer as rainmaker Starbuck. Starbuck is a tricky role—first introduced to us in his spiel as con man, next a fairly mean adversary of Lizzie (who opposes her father's paying Starbuck $100 to make rain), then revealing his own vulnerabilities. When Starbuck first arrives at the Curry home (not at the town picnic as in the musical version 110 in the Shade) Keffer has been directed to play at full-throttle revival-tent intensity. (He's in their living room, for God's sake!) This moment is played so big that it makes it "a long throw to third" to bring Starbuck believably to a more vulnerable place, and Keffer struggles to find the one man that is underneath all these different behaviors. Even so, Keffer's good looks and full bodied speaking voice make him a believable Starbuck. (Though he doesn't get to sing here, Keffer has a terrific baritone which would make him a great Starbuck for 110 in the Shade, which gives the character several songs and more stage time that help develop the character more fully than The Rainmaker does.)

The Rainmaker for all its realism and sincere concern for its characters pain, also wears its heart on its sleeve in the romanticism that lent it to musicalization. The big monologues and emotional pronouncements like "if you don't believe you're a woman, you're not." or "If somebody holds out his hand to you, you've got to reach and take it" seem, strangely enough, more believable when sung than spoken. Even so, the warm characters and feel-good message of The Rainmaker are worth revisiting in either incarnation, or in for that matter, the successful 1956 film adaptation starring Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster.

This intimate production takes us right into the Curry's parlor and sheriff's office, courtesy of a realistic set by Genovese and period costumes by Theresa Ham. It's two-plus hours in good company and a good example of why this play should remain in the standard repertoire of mid-Century American theatre.

The Rainmaker will be performed through May 6, 2012 at Theatre Wit, 1227 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. For tickets, call the Theater Wit Box Office at 773-975-8150 or visit www.BoHoTheatre.com.


Photo provided by Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

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-- John Olson



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