Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Rainmaker, Defiance and Tammy Grimes


American Conservatory Theatre Presents an Appealing Production of The Rainmaker

Geordie Johnson and René Augesen
American Conservatory Theatre is presenting N. Richard Nash's heartfelt The Rainmaker, a classic American romance about a drought, a con artist and a country girl. The comedy-drama is a pre-feminist, old-fashioned three-act presentation of a time when women stayed at home and did all of those wifely things like cooking and cleaning. Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones turned the story into the musical 110 in the Shade. I first saw this play at the Cort Theatre during the fall of 1954, with Geraldine Page playing Lizzie and Darren McGavin as the con man Starbuck.  A.C.T.'s director Mark Rucker is presenting the original three-act, two-intermission play through November 25 on the Geary Street stage

The Rainmaker is set on a Western cattle ranch during the big drought of 1936. Lizzie Curry (René Augesen) is an unmarried young woman who is doing all of the wifely things for her widowed father H.C. (Jack Willis) and her two brothers, the skeptical and no-nonsense talking Noah (Stephen Barker Turner) and the naïve and energetic Jimmy (Alex Morf). Lizzie is a sweet, spunky and socially tongue-tied woman who looks as if she will be an old maid.  Her father and brothers are trying to find a mate for her, and they even they attempt to get local sherriff, File (Anthony Fusco), to woo her. 

Slick-talking Bill Starbuck (Geordie Johnson) comes to the ranch house and claims he can make the rain fall for the bargain price of one hundred dollars.  Jimmy and H.C. excitedly go for the scam ("Sometimes, you need a con man to have faith").  Gradually the whole family falls under the spell of the attractive pretender, with Lizzie falling for him hook, line and sinker.  The second act has the central themes of confidence, dreams and hope that become a reality as Starbuck confronts the Currys to change the way they view each other. This is especially true in a romantic scene between Starbuck and Lizzie. The third act shows that kindness and hopefulness can triumph over skepticism with a thunder and lighting rainstorm.

René Augesen (ACT core actress) is clearly a gifted and sympathetic actress, and this is one of her best roles to date. She presents a smart and poignant, tremulously translucent Lizzie Curry. The lovely actress successfully changes herself into a very plain woman.

Geordie Johnson (last season ACT's Travesties plus 11 seasons with the Stratford Festival of Canada) gives a magnetizing performance as smooth-talking Starbuck. He brings to the role a spirited physically with his evangelical charm and lyrical process.  One can almost compare him to Robert Preston in The Music Man.

Jack Willis (ACT core actor) gives a strong performance as the deeply loving H.C who gives in to Starbuck's warnings.   Once again, his powerful stage voice is an asset.  Alex Morf (graduate of ACT Master of Fine Arts Program) almost steals the show as the not too smart, impulsive younger brother Jimmy. His changes from an intimidated clown to a boastful young man are delicious.  Stephen Barker Turner (ACT productions of Hedda Gabler and Luminescence Dating) gives a winning performances as the excessively sensible older brother Noah.

Anthony Fusco (many ACT productions including Hedda Gabler, The Rivals, The Imaginary Invalid) is excellent as the deputy sheriff whose inability to speak from his heart almost causes him to lose his second chance at love.  Ron Gnapp (Frozen, Happy End, Cat on Hot Tin Roof) gives a first rate performance as Sheriff Thomas with a down home western accent.

Set designer Robert Mark Morgan has devised a brilliantly suggested ranch house with a windmill and a big full moon rising above the roof. The kitchen and foyer slide apart to make way for the Sheriff's office. Through Don Darnutzer's lighting and Jeff Mockus' sound the lighting, the rainstorm at the end is awesome. Costumes by Lydia Tanji are excellent rural costumes of the 1930s.

The Rainmaker plays through November 25 at the A.C.T. Theatre, 405 Geary St at Mason, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit The A.C.T. annual The Christmas Carol opens on December 5 and runs through December 23rd.

Photo: Kevin Berne

A Powerful Production of Defiance at Playhouse West

Playhouse West is currently presenting John Patrick Shanley's explosive drama, Defiance, through November 25 at their intimate playhouse in Walnut Creek.

Defiance premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club on March 1, 2006, and immediately critics tried to compare it with the playwright's Doubt. The current 90-minute drama is more motivated but has significantly less of a focal point than the Pulitzer Prize winning Doubt. Defiance once again deals with morality.  It deals with people who are extremely sure of what they absolutely know. It is a provocative and superbly written play set in the military.

Defiance takes place at the North Carolina Marine base Camp Lejeune during the Vietnam War. Some of the men have just returned from the war, which is winding down, while others are new recruits. The recruiters are having problems getting men to enlist since there is a strong anti-war attitude in the U.S. The Marine Corps is no longer segregated and African-American men are intermingling with the whites. However, they are still not give equal rights compared to the white marines.

Colonel Littlefield (Louis Parnell) is a strong, abrasive man who has to deal with the racial unrest that has occurred on the base. The main problem is that African-American marines are having a hard time finding apartments for their families in the seaside town. There are black power rumblings going on at the base and an increasing dominance of the religious right threatening to engulf this way of life. The colonel is from the old school and just sees his men as "white, black, blue or stupid." The commanding officer calls up Captain King (David Jonathan Stewart), a straight arrow African-American officer, to fix the problems. Colonel Littlefield, who is nearing retiring age and has not given up on finding "one more good, clean fight," hopes to move up in rank once the problems have been solved. Captain King would prefer to stay "invisible" and feels he is being used by the colonel. He used to have dreams of black and whites living together in harmony, but when Martin Luther King was assassinated, he buried his dream.

Colonel Littlefield also enlists the aid of Chaplain White (Mike Reynolds), a sycophantic Evangelical homily-spouting chaplain, but after a conversation with him, he discovers this is the wrong man for the job.

The base commander moves Captain King from his Judge Advocate post to becoming Littlefield's protégé and right hand man, much to the consternation of the African-American captain. The first hour of the play is mostly talk, both fascinating and stimulating, on the nature of command and compliance. Both men are on a collision course that occurs in the last thirty minutes of the remarkable drama. This involves a cuckolded Marine, Private Davis (Alex Kirschner), who demands to be sent to Vietnam to escape the shame of his wife having had intercourse with the colonel.

Director Adam Fitzgerald has assembled a terrific cast of six actors in the mesmeric production. Defiance opens up as the Gunney Sergeant, played by John Hale, storms out and faces the audience as if they are marines, and chastises various spectators for inflection of rules of conduct.  He is very scary as he yells at certain persons in this small intimate playhouse. Louis Parnell as Colonel Littlefield does the same on the other side of the playhouse. It is a great start for this potent drama.

Louis Parnell as the colonel and David Jonathan Stewart as Captain King are riveting as they thrust and parry confrontations, especially in the last thirty minutes. Louis Parnell's macho brusqueness is first rate, particularly in regard to the character's wife and the chaplain in the first scene. However, Parnell successfully shows the colonel's center starting to melt down to a pitiful creature in the last thirty minutes.

David Jonathan Steward is predominantly successful in communicating his agonizing moral crisis, even when showing his strong military bearing. His confrontations with the colonel involve outstanding acting. Heather Mathieson is wonderful as Margaret, the long suffering wife of Colonel Littlefield.  She underplays the role marvelously, especially in her conversations with her husband.

Mike Reynolds as Chaplin White successfully takes the character from being a buffoon to a malicious person with very little genuineness in between. Alex Kirschner is very good in his one scene as the cuckold private who wants to go to Vietnam to die.

Adam Fitzgerald's direction is crisp and fast paced. His idea of having a gunney sergeant bark out orders at the start of the play gives the drama a powerful beginning. Lighting by David McCollum is excellent for this small 50-seat theatre. Cindy Sarmiento's costumes are authentic Marine Corp outfits.

Defiance runs through November 25th at Playhouse West, 1345 Locust Street, Walnut Creek.   For tickets call 925-942-0300 or visit  The company will repeat their opening production Celebrate Playhouse West, Musical Legacy on November 30 thru December 8th.

The Unsinkable Tammy Grimes at the Empire Plush Room

Broadway legend Tammy Grimes still has the charisma to entertain a live audience. What a pleasure it was to see this legend who entertained me in the The Littlest Revue, High Spirits, 42nd Street and the original Unsinkable Molly Brown. In her recent show at the Empire Plush Room, Ms. Grimes came out onto the stage with very little introduction, dressed in a black grown saying "My name is Tammy Grimes and I am an alcoholic." The 73-year-old versatile lady with the distinctive whiskey voice sang nineteen songs in a smoothly paced, 70-minute show, with very little conversation about her life. She had difficulty in sustaining the high notes in some of the songs but she still has an idiosyncratic voice in the low registers.  What she lacks in vocal ability she makes up for in acting out the songs, like when she sang the classic "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera.   One could almost hear the vocal qualities of Lotte Lenya in this rendition of the song.

Miss Tammy Grimes' unique voice came through in renditions of Meredith Willson's "My Own Brass Bed," "I'll Never Say No" and" I Ain't Down Yet," from The Unsinkable Molly Brown, backed by perky pianist Dennis Buck.  She softly captivated the audience in James S. Hanley and Ballard MacDonald's "Rose of Washington Square" and segued into the lively Kander & Ebb "Ring them Bells."  She gave a wonderful interpretation of Oscar Brown Jr.'s "The Snake" and a touching rendition of Tom Waits' "Martha," and delivered with cunning elegance "Home Sweet Heaven" and "You'd Better Love Me" from Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray's High Spirits.

The singer told a story about how 42nd Street director and choreographer Gower Champion tested her very limited dancing skills before singing "Shadow Waltz" (she demonstrated by doing a swan, flapping her arms as if in Swan Lake). She also sang a rousing "About a Quarter to Nine" from the same musical.

Tammy's encore was the lovely Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill's song "It Never Was You." One could wish she would use as an encore, Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here."  She is still the unsinkable Molly Brown in my book.

Miss Tammy Grimes played at the Empire Plush Room through November 11. Coming next is Tim Hockenberry, November 15 through November 18, followed by Sally Kellerman on November 23 and 24th. Box office number is 866-468-3399 and their website is

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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