A drought has gripped the town where H.C. Curry, sons Noah and Jim, and daughter Lizzie reside. Threatened with financial ruin, Curry is nonetheless more worried about his daughter’s dry spell as she approaches the threat of “spinsterhood”. In one day, their luck and hopes are revived with the arrival of a stranger, brandishing a flashy name (Starbuck) and promising of all things, rain.
Set in the Dustbowl-dirty 30’s, Rainmaker was written in pre-feminist 1950’s and is laden with ideas from both eras. During the 1930’s, Pluto was discovered, Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and Superman first appeared in comic books.
Extending well into the next 20 years were uncomfortable notions about charismatic strangers, strong-willed women, American youth wasting as delinquents, and unlikely miracles.
The Rainmaker has been criticized for its treacly exposition of American fears and ideals. A mysterious drifter arrives to deliver both meteorological and spiritual breakthroughs. Not only does an honest, prairie family embrace him, but shield him from the law—after knowing him for less than a day. Really? Puh-lease!
Almost every child in every era has been lectured about stranger-danger and too-good-to-be-true bargains. Yet, with proper staging, the play oozes with timeless concepts of trust, hope, love, and self-discovery, which explains its continued revival on stages worldwide. Director Ron Reed’s production is one such must-see gem.
[Andrew Wheeler, Pippa Johnstone]
John Webber’s minimalist set is impeccably suited for the walk-through, alley-style seating at this intimate venue. Using insipid colours splashed on canvas walls, a patchwork of burlap imitating cracked, sun-burnt earth, and bare essentials for props (Carolyn Rapanos), viewers are given an almost 360-degree sense of a vast desert expanse within Pacific Theatre’s 20×20 space.
The wall-less set allows audiences to fully engage with the performers from all angles.
Scenic changes are achieved by subtle prop and lighting adjustments (courtesy of Shelby Bushell and Matt Frankish), rather than by physical barriers. Due to the close quarters, exacting performances are demanded of the cast in order to pull off a plot hardly plausible for modern cynical sensibilities.
This production marries a cast of relative newcomers with seasoned actors. Their superb performances are matched only by their engaging on-stage chemistry. The cast disappear into their roles through Sydney Cavanagh’s authentic period costuming, finessed with understated details. Andrew Wheeler is simply delightful as the peace-keeping patriarchal H.C. Curry, exuding the ideal of folksy wisdom and endearing patience.
While he knows with certainty that the rains will come, his sons and daughter can only hope and grumble. His reasons for accepting a bargain with a slippery con man are less for his crops and more for his daughter’s sake. Robert Salvador deliciously plays the charismatic Starbuck with the flair and gusto of a fanatical televangelist. Waltzing into the Curry home, he smells ripe opportunities: a desperate situation and a woman low on self-esteem.
However, he underestimates the allure of a conflicted Lizzie, played by Pippa Johnstone with acerbic poise. Her performance pivoted on her natural ability to balance Lizzie’s destructive inner conflict to stifle her true nature or succumb to popular ideals. Lizzie’s delicate morality eventually coaxes out the human side of the cagey Starbuck. However, prickly-tempered Noah (Kenton Klassen) fuels Lizzie’s negative emotions by playing the righteous bully, to both her and younger brother Jim.
Klassen’s assertive performance creates a character that is simultaneously likeable and despicable. Ryan Scramstad is outrageously adorable as the doltish, young Jimmy. Hilariously funny and straight-faced while delivering bang-on one-liners, Scramstad’s character is touchingly sweet in his brash naiveté. By the third act, the audience is plugging for him and Lizzie to succeed.
Rounding out the superb cast, Peter Church is aplomb as the jovial sheriff and John Voth is simply brilliant as the restless and aloof File. Ultimately, the fine performances serve to expose the underlying theme of the play. More than a mere yarn about a bitter drought or a tale of a woman’s romantic hopes, The Rainmaker is about individuals discovering their true selves.
The wisdom of H.C. encapsulates this whole idea when he explains that one must learn to make the distinction between what is right versus what is good.
The Rainmaker runs Wednesday to Saturday at Pacific Theatre through November 1.
Photos by Emily Cooper.