- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2006

A lack of rain is not the only drought in “The Rainmaker.” In N. Richard Nash’s play, every character is parched in some way, hoping for revival in miracles big and small.

Loneliness and isolation pierce director Lisa Peterson’s finely wrought production of the 50-year-old American classic, which has been performed in schools and community theaters across the country as well as on the sitcom “Happy Days,” with the Fonz playing the charming con man Starbuck and Mrs. C as the imminent spinster, Lizzie.

Set in the American West during the Great Depression, “The Rainmaker” has an aura of quiet desperation about it, as if the weather isn’t the only thing holding back this flinty community of ranchers and townspeople.

The Curry family may be the proudest and most wrung out of them all. The genially paternal H.C. (William Parry) heads up an ornery brood, starting with his eldest son, Noah (Graham Winton), a numbers cruncher who wants to run the family the same way he treats the livestock. His penchant for seeing everything in stark black and white butts up against his younger sibling, Jim (Ben Fox), an impetuous dreamer, and his sister, Lizzie (Johanna Day), a tomboyish woman rapidly reaching the end of her marrying years. (Remember, the play takes place in the 1930s.)

The overprotective Curry men want nothing more than for Lizzie to get hitched, and their buttinsky, butterfingered attempts to find her a man — any man — fuel the play’s honest, plainspoken humor. They set their sights on File (Frank Wood), the town deputy, and Lizzie is not averse to the idea. But he is a wounded soul, still sore over his wife divorcing him for a myopic schoolteacher.

Though the Currys’ schemes to get Lizzie to the altar are well-meaning, they do carry a sting. Everyone tries so hard because Lizzie is “plain,” a commodity in need of prettier packaging. This pervasive air, that Lizzie is not conventionally attractive, has hemmed her in and worn her down. Although tough as jerky on the outside, she carries her plainness like a grudge.

Lizzie and the rest of the community need something — anything. That catalyst arrives in the form of a slightly seedy, charming confidence man named Bill Starbuck (Michael Laurence), who promises that for $100 he can make it rain.

His presence does more than induce precipitation.

Starbuck is a passionate optimist and opportunist who makes other people believe. In the course of one hot night, he persuades Jim to follow his heart and helps Lizzie see herself other than in her family’s hard eyes. For one night, she is beautiful, and she comes to life like a flower in the rain.

At the beginning, Mr. Laurence comes off as so startlingly peculiar that he seems like a possessed scarecrow. He calms down, especially in his love scenes with Lizzie, and reveals the charisma of a benevolent bamboozler.

“The Rainmaker” gets off to a drowsy beginning, as the play establishes character and place well into the first act. However, Miss Day’s Lizzie is a firecracker from the start, a restless and poetic soul trapped by harsh conventions. She’s in some savage limbo between daughter and wife. And because she has never really lived in her body and has let other people define her, she doesn’t know what to do with it. Miss Day conveys Lizzie’s awkwardness by having her in a constant state of agitated motion, her gestures as wide and exaggerated as something sprung from a comic book.

Her scenes with File are indelible — funny and infuriating — as the two fumbling wooers dance around each other with two left feet. It is only after meeting Starbuck, and after their scorching, sex-charged night together, that Lizzie begins to take possession of her body, gaining the confidence to control her romantic destiny. Mr. Wood’s File takes laconic to a whole new level, giving the character’s stubborn reluctance a sly comic gleam.

As Noah, Mr. Winton plays stony pragmatism with a fierceness that makes you wonder what the character is hiding. In contrast, Mr. Fox’s Jim is charmingly rambunctious, his emotions and blurted statements bursting out at unexpected moments.

Arena’s production of “The Rainmaker” does not unleash a cloudburst of feelings. Instead, it emits a gentle, steady sense of hope that even in our most despairing moments, relief and release are only a drop away.

***

WHAT: “The Rainmaker” by N. Richard Nash

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Saturdays. Through April 9.

TICKETS: $46 to $60

PHONE: 202/488-3300MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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