While there are some moving moments in the Rainbow Theater Company’s revival of N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker,” a fanciful work about the need for love, dreams, and self-esteem, director Jack Heller establishes an overly literal, heavy tone that stifles the story’s magical romanticism.
The action takes place in 1937 on a Dust Bowl family farm that is withering under a devastating drought. Lizzie (Tanna Frederick) is a “plain” woman who keeps house for her father, H.C. (Stephen Howard), and her two brothers, Noah (David Garver) and Jim (Benjamin Chamberlain). The men would like to marry Lizzie off to the first taker, although the hardheaded Noah is certain that nobody would want her. One possibility is File (Scott Roberts), the local deputy sheriff, but he is romantically gun shy since his wife ran off with another man.
Enter Starbuck (Robert Standley), a con artist selling fantasies, who promises to bring on the rain in return for $100, given on faith. The trusting H.C. hands him the money, to the dismay of Noah and Lizzie. But though he is a huckster, Starbuck ultimately awakens something in Lizzie and inspires her to discover her own brand of beauty.
Going against the obvious, Frederick plays Lizzie as strong and feisty, focusing less on her fragile, repressed side. It is a perfectly credible choice, and when she does expose her character’s stoic despair, pain, and neediness, Frederick is all the more effective. Starbuck should be a seductive, charismatic charmer, but Standley lacks these attributes. His Starbuck behaves like a bull in a china shop when he first enters, badgering rather than beguiling his targets into compliance. The actor is more effective in his love scenes with Frederick, during which he softens and comes closer to being the romantic dreamer.
It is Howard, as the optimistic, loving father, who is most successful at achieving the fairy-tale level of the piece. There is something of the leprechaun in his demeanor, and he is totally endearing onstage. He and Frederick are particularly touching during their interactions in the second act, as Lizzie reveals her heartbreak and H.C. professes to see the beauty in his daughter.
Garver, Chamberlain, and Roberts do acceptable, believable work, but they fail to transcend their stock characters. Ralph Guzzo is a likable, sympathetic sheriff, who tries to get File engaged in the life around him.
“The Rainmaker” is dated in its chauvinistic assumptions about women, but the script overcomes that limitation because it is more concerned with the transformative power of believing. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of this production.
Presented by Henry Jaglom and the Rainbow Theater Company, in association with the Edgemar Center for the Arts, at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica. Jan. 11–March 24. (310) 392-7327 or www.edgemarcenter.org.
Critic’s Score: C