It’s a time of desperate drought in N. Richard Nash’s period romantic comedy, The Rainmaker. Cattle are dying on the Curry’s 1930s dust bowl farm, and family life grows ever more arid under the burning glare of Noah Curry’s bitter honesty. Yet sensitive directing and strong acting in Fifty Foot Penguin and Minnesota Actors Theater’s co-production at the Centennial Showboat infuses Nash’s somewhat hokey American classic with fresh vigor.
The plot revolves around Lizzie Curry, affectingly played by Carla Reck. Lizzie is getting on in years. Her mother died long ago, and Lizzie fills the woman’s role in the family, caring for her two grown brothers and her much-loved, aging father, HC. Lizzie is a plain, intelligent woman; she’s direct, capable and articulate, and she longs to be married. Her brother, the controlling Noah, believes she’s too plain and direct to attract a man and tells her so, repeatedly. Her father hopes for Lizzie to find love, like he hopes for rain. Her younger brother Jim believes he is already in love, but Noah uses moralistic rectitude to scorch this budding relationship. Into this parched household breezes Starbuck, played by Carl Schoenborn, a likeable con man, with the promise of rain in his empty pockets.
Director Brian Goranson made an interesting choice in casting Schoenborn as Starbuck. Schoenborn is no picture-book prince, riding high on personal charisma; his Starbuck is an ordinary bloke, a bit overweight but with enough imagination and wit to talk his way into and out of a situation. This casting decision nudges the focus of the play away from Starbuck and toward Lizzie.
Starbuck is none-the-less a large presence on stage. He quickly sums up the family dynamics and intercedes on Lizzie and Jim’s behalf as he cons the family out of $100 that it can ill afford to lose. The role really becomes Schoenborn’s in a vulnerable moment in the tack room when Starbuck tries to convince Lizzie that’s she’s pretty and admits that he’s really Bill Smith, a lonely man on the make. The scene between them awakens less into hot passion, and more into an acute longing for connection between two socially isolated people, and it feels as right as a shower of rain.
Reck scrags her hair back into a tight ponytail, wears unflattering dresses and heavy shoes in Emily Heaney’s period costume design, and plumbs Lizzie’s deep womanliness. Lizzie secretly likes the book-reading, up-tight assistant sheriff File, appealingly played by John Middleton, but she falls into agonized self-consciousness in his equally awkward company.
Noah’s ruthless honesty and need to be in control sears every member of the family, but with Goranson’s sensitive directing and David Pust’s adroit acting, Noah rises beyond being a one-note "type." Noah kneels at Lizzie’s feet like a lover about to propose, tenderly takes her hand, looks into her eyes and tells her she is plain and bound to be an old maid. In this tender but destructive moment, I felt Noah’s deep love for his sister; he believes that he is helping her.
Veteran actor Bruce Hyde convinces as HC, a wise man who uses his long perspective on life to sometimes over-rule rigid Noah. Lizzie’s younger brother Jim is engagingly played by Mathew Erkel, and Dwight Gunderson plays the sheriff.
Pust also designed the set, a simple sitting and dining room that doubles in one section as the sheriff’s office and the farm tack room. The set works well and has nice period details, like an old party-line wall phone, but on the Showboat stage, the space sometimes feels cramped as actors squeeze past each other, hemmed between wall and furniture.
Katherine Horowitz’ sound design includes vintage country music and nice touches, like a train rumbling in the distance. Lighting by Jennifer DeGolier defines the switch in locations as scenes change.
The Rainmaker is not challenging theater, but in this well-acted production, it sure is rewarding, as Starbuck schemes to relieve Lizzie’s emotional drought.
The Rainmaker February 10 – 26. Fridays 8:00 p.m. Call for times on Saturday and Sundays. Fifty foot Penguin and Actors Theater of Minnesota at the Centennial Showboat, Harriet Island, St. Paul. Tickets: $22 – 27. Call 651-227-1100.