Friday, February 1, 2013

The Rainmaker by N. Richard Nash

Robert Standley & Tanna Frederick

By Joe Straw

My path, coming out of the men’s room at intermission at The Edgemar Theatre, was blocked.  Henry Jaglom, the producer, and Jack Heller, the director, were having a spirited discussion about what didn’t go right in the first act—lighting cues, blocking, etc.—on a night when the press was occupying seats in the audience.  

While I was standing there, I bent my knees, lowered my chin, and parked myself on Jaglom’s right shoulder and decided to listen in on their vociferous conversation. (Figuratively, for just a moment, mind you.)  It was nothing out of the ordinary, typical theatre talk, but a vigorous discussion nonetheless.  This happens frequently in theater, each person working for that ultimate goal that is rarely and completely satisfied.  This is one of the reasons I love theatre.

Henry Jaglom & The Rainbow Theater Company present, in association with The Edgemar Center For The Arts, Tanna Frederick and Robert Standley in The Rainmaker, a romantic comedy in three acts by N. Richard Nash.

Funny when you want it to be, honest when you need it to be, and sincere when you want to embrace it, The Rainmaker, directed by Jack Heller, is a stimulating romantic comedy and a wonderful production.

But, and this is a little but, there are a few things that stuck in my craw and heck they might have already straightened themselves out by the time you read this.  I’ll get to those below.

“The play takes place in a western state on a summer day in a time of a drought.” – N. Richard Nash

Early in the morning, Noah Curry (David Garver), fresh from the tack house, hears some rustling in the kitchen and finds his father, H.C. Curry (Stephen Howard), in apron, rustling up some grub. Noah figured it was Lizzie (Tanna Frederick) back from her one-week extravaganza to Sweetriver.   Noah, hungry, wants to wake Lizzie up so she can fix his breakfast.  But H.C. stops Noah because Lizzie is worn out from her we-tried-to-get-her-married-trip.   

But, that trip had no such luck.

Noah reaches down to hear the drought report on his brother’s, Jim (Benjamin Chamberlain), crystal set (radio) and, after hearing nothing, wonders why Jim wastes his money on such foolishness.  

Things are not looking up for the Curry household as Noah heads for the ledger book to note the death of three calves and a couple of heifers.  He tells H.C. that, because of the drought, he has laid off two workers.  H.C. doesn’t like that idea but he has officially turned the ranching reins over to Noah.

Noah abuses his authority and manipulates his relations, starting with Jim who is slightly “touched”.  Noah sees his little brother as a jackanapes but Jim is a fully- grown man with a heart of gold. 

At this point in his life, Jim’s mind is only on Snookie Maguire (not seen), a woman who has caught his fancy. Noah thinks Snookie is a bad idea because of her fast Essex car, red hat, and bleached blond hair.

Nevertheless, H.C., Noah, and Jim got bigger fish to fry. They’ve got to find a way to get Lizzie married but no wants to say anything directly to her. The boys look to their father for guidance.

“I can’t!  I can’t just speak up and say:  “Lizzie, you gotta get married!”  She knows she’s gotta get married.  We all know it.” – H.C.

With her ears burning, Lizzie gingerly steps down the stairs, taking note of what need to be done around the house.  She says hello but only snarls at Noah. They stare at her thinking of what needs to be said but they talk only about the drought.  

“I dreamed we had a rain – a great big rain!” – Lizzie

Lizzie fantasizes about her future until Noah stomps on her dream.

“Drought’s drought – and a dream’s a dream.” – Noah

“But it was a nice dream, Noah – and nearly as good as rain.” – Lizzie

“Near ain’t rain!” – Noah

But they want to know about her adventure in Sweetriver and the men she met.

“Oh, I’m crazy about Pete – he asked me to marry him.” – Lizzie

“Is that true, Lizzie?!” – H.C.

“He did?!  What did you tell him?! – Jim

“I told him I would – as soon as he graduates from grammar school.” – Lizzie

“Grammar school?!  Is he that dumb?!” – Jim

No, just nine years old. Lizzie tells them the trip to Sweetriver was a waste of time, that everyone was just stared at her, and that she was smarter than all of them. And then, after that, things went south when someone asked her if she was going to be a “schoolmarm” (in other words, an old maid.)

H.C. lovingly tells his daughter that she is beautiful and that all is not lost because they got a plan to go to the Sheriff’s office and invite the deputy, File (Scott Roberts), over for dinner.  Lizzie wants no part of their plan; she doesn’t think File is interested. But she relents after much badgering and decides to cook a wonderful dinner.

Meanwhile, at the Sheriff’s office, the Sheriff (Ralph Guzzo) knows File is lonely and offers him a dog. But File is set in his ways, has few possessions, sleeps on the couch, and sees no point in having a dog.

After the Sheriff leaves, H.C., Noah, and Jim enter and attempt to invite File for dinner but it takes them some time to get to the point. And during the process, Jim loses sight of why they are there, takes umbrage of File’s insinuations, and takes a swing at File. File decks Jim, sending him to the floor.  

After Jim and Noah leave, H.C. has a heart to heart with File and wants to know why he hit Jim.

“I got angry.” – File

“Angry? – why? We come around here and say we like you enough to have you in our family.  Is that an insult?” – H.C.

“I don’t like people interferin’.” – File

H.C. is not through. Hurt at how File treats his family, he lets some truth of his own: that File is not a widower, that his wife ran out on him, and that it doesn’t matter that his wife left him.

Back home, Lizzie has prepared a resplendent table for the big dinner complete with candlesticks. H.C. smiles but doesn’t say anything as and Lizzie runs upstairs to change.

Just then the phone rings. It’s Snookie Maguire much to Jim’s exorbitant delight.

Lizzie comes down for dinner. Now she is absolutely stunning in a yellow button dress and everybody just lights up. Until H.C. implies (without saying it) that File is not coming and Lizzie suddenly comes down on herself.  

Jim, feeling sorry for his sister, tells Lizzie that she’s going about getting a man all wrong.

“You talk too serious!  And if there’s anything scares hell out of a fella it’s a serious-talkin girl!” – Jim  

Lizzie can play the girl and does so before she runs out of patience and starts to run up to her room.  But then, the front door opens and in marches Starbuck (Ranbert Standley). Lizzie is not impressed.

“What is it?  What can we do for you?” – H.C.

“You’re askin’ the wrong questions.  The question is what can I do for you?” - Starbuck

Starbuck knows they’ve lost twelve steers on the north range and sixty-two in the gully. He promises to be the man who can straighten the out the whole matter because he brings rain.  Lizzie calls him crazy and Starbucks takes the pitcher of water and pours it over his head.

“The name is Starbuck – Rainmaker.” - Starbuck

Starbuck convinces them that he can bring rain for a meager price of one hundred dollars and wouldn’t you know it, they give him the money but not without a fight.

In N. Richard Nash’s play, each character is affected by the drought, they are exasperated by the drought and that drives them.  H.C. taking chances with the money, Starbucks calling upon the rain for his next get rich quick scheme, Jim needing the heat for his romance, and Lizzie wanting to find a husband before the heat shrivels her dry.  It is this sense of futility and dramatic position in life that makes them want to move forward, and want change.  Things aren’t going to get any better unless something happens. And they are forced by their exasperation to make something happen. Which is why this is such a romantic comedy.

L - R. David Garver, Stephen Howard, Tanna Frederick, Benjamin Chamberlain 

Tanna Frederick is marvelous as Lizzy and comfortable as she moves about the stage with complete confidence.  She has big bold expressive eyes and a dramatic sense of her place in the universe.  As the character a dreamer she is not, but she can be carried away in someone else’s dream. In fact, she wants to be carried away. On the other end of that dream, she can also be dragged down by the small-town nightmare of her brother’s rhetoric. There is a beautiful and funny moment in the play when she has to make a choice.  It is a wonderful moment of want and desire, and of need and hope that I will carry with me forever.  Frederick is astonishing in a performance everyone should see.  

Robert Standley has an interesting interpretation of Bill Starbuck. I didn’t quite get snapping fingers thing and pouring the water over his head hits a false note. But overall Standley was engaging. His Starbuck is none too bright but he has the ability to raise the roof when called upon. He knows his limitations and he knows his strength.  It takes a lot to get the people to do what needs to be done.  His stories are complete corn but he manages to get the others to fall in line with his excessive spirit. Standley was very charming.

Stephen Howard is excellent as H.C Curry.  His first order or business is his daughter and he takes great care to handle her needs with the sensitivity of a great father.   He is somehow trapped in the middle of all of his children, smarter than some and not as smart as others, but a guiding presence nevertheless, and wonderful to watch. Howard gives this character a remarkable strength and shows an separate emotional commitment to each of his children.  This is a wonderful performance.

David Garver is Noah Curry, a brother so intent of running things the right way, his way. But despite all of his meddling, nothing seems to go his way. His solution to the “marriage crisis” is to call Lizzie plain, which, with his brows arching and his heart breaking, is a marvelous and wonderful moment in the play. I’ve seen Garver in other things and I believe the beard doesn’t work for the character, possibly if this was the cold Appalachians, maybe.  Either find a way for the character to use it or shave it.  I’ve seen him in other things and I think clean-shaven is his best option.  

Benjamin Chamberlain as Jim Curry has some fine moments but does not really find the core of the character.  Chamberlain has to find the joy in Jim.  And the character Jim has to find the joy in the simple things in life and keep looking for them during his time on stage, whether it’s his radio, Snookie, or anything for which he has a profound interest. This idea will carry him to his objective and give truth to his actions on stage.  Chamberlain’s concentration was slightly lacking this night.  At one point, he knocks the receiver off the phone and doesn’t see that he has done so for the entire scene. Getting comfortable with the character will help. Jim is a lot smarter than he looks and, after his rendezvous with Snookie, he needs to show us that profound change the moment he comes back into the door.

Scott Roberts plays File with a supreme subtlety, not something one wants to see in a romantic comedy. His pain isn’t deep enough, his mystery is not mysterious enough, and his emotional commitment to love lacks a passion for someone who desperately wants it.  All is not bleak.  Roberts does some fine work and one would have to give him credit for his everyman portrayal.  But is it enough to see an everyman portrayal when venturing out on a romantic night like this?

Ralph Guzzo plays Sheriff Thomas with a lot of gusto. But he really has to give us more, more of the character, the character’s objective, and a little more creative life out of the man. It’s not enough to slap on a costume and viola he’s the Sheriff.  There is more he can do to create a livelier and creative character and one that also defines the relationship with his deputy.

Jack Heller, the director, does a fine job with the direction and, once everything settles down, this production should have a long run.  All the elements are there but at times the cast looks stranded on stage looking for something to do, an action to complete.  Stifled by the drought, Noah gets his ledger but does little to relate it to the things around him. No one really battles for the 100 dollars being shelled out.  Jim beats his drum but never looks up into the sky to see if it’s having an effect.  Starbucks pours water over his head and no one minds that this is their drinking water for the next week.

Look, the rain is out of their control, but getting Lizzie married is in their control and they should all work harder to make sure it happens no matter how conflicted their lives are at any given moment of the play.  This is a family that is exasperated trying to do the right thing, and with a little tweaking, and a little more passion, we’ve got ourselves a rich romantic comedy.

Wonderfully produced by Alexandra Guarnieri. 

The set is marvelous by Set Designer Christopher Stone who has created a very dry ranch somewhere where the dust blows in and covers the lonely soul.

Juliet Klancher was the Lighting Designer.

Phil Tran was the Prop Master/Set Dresser.

Composer/Sound Designer was Noah Calvin.

The Stage Manager is Thomas Zoeschg.

And the Press Representative was Philip Sokoloff.

Run!  And take a woman who thinks she is plain.  This play will open her eyes to endless possibilities.

Reservations:  310-392-7327

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