It's the night before the Trinity atomic test at Los Alamos, N.M., and everyone's a bit jumpy. Excitement, exhaustion, fear, curiosity -- these emotions and many more run through Lanford Wilson's speech-heavy but satisfying "Rain Dance." As the boyishly hyperbolic physicist Hank (James Van Der Beek) puts it, the next morning will bring either "triumph or disaster. Well, disaster in any case, but triumph or failure."
The setting is tailor-made for all sorts of editorializing, but Wilson mostly steers clear of polemics. He seems just as interested in the interactions between the physicists (euphemistically referred to as "engineers") and the Native American tribes near Los Alamos. The latter group is embodied by Tony (Randolph Mantooth), a taciturn military policeman and former Indian dancer. Tony betrayed his tribe by performing sacred dances as entertainment years earlier in Paris; the U.S. government is about to despoil the local area and possibly do much, much worse. Both have the power to bring the heavens down.
Wilson spends most of the evening playing directly with stereotypes -- the inscrutable Indian, the gung-ho American, the haunted German emigres (the very effective Harris Yulin and Suzanne Regan) -- but springs a few surprises on us by the end. Christine Jones' set, a makeshift cantina, manages to feel lived-in and ephemeral at the same time, a perfect metaphor for its jaded, terrified inhabitants.
With the exception of a few overreaching soliloquies near the end, "Rain Dance" serves as a fitting example of Wilson's amiable passion. Director Guy Sanville has developed a plausible and engaging set of dynamics among the characters. Van Der Beek's nervous energy works well with Mantooth's low-key charm, although Hank's more heightened passages are a bit strident. Yulin brings his dependable gravitas, and Regan is particularly strong as his wife, a kind woman at risk of sinking into despair. In the fraught atmosphere that Wilson capably creates, her delicacy is all too understandable.