WEB EXTRA: Theatre Review: “The Rainmaker”

Some plays have stuck around because of their quality and continued relevance. And then there is Arena Stage’s The Rainmaker.

The Rainmaker is dated in the worst way: it presents a central situation so old fashioned it seems absurd. Here’s the deal: The Currys live on a ranch somewhere in the western United States during a cattle-killing drought. The problem is Lizzie (Johanna Day), the unmarried daughter of the family.

Her father (William Parry) and youngest brother (the delightful Ben Fox) both want her to marry the sheriff’s deputy (Frank Wood), but her older brother (Graham Winton) takes it upon himself to be the bearer of bad tidings and let her know that she’s going to be an old maid. Enter Starbuck (Michael Laurence), a scrawny con man who claims that he can bring rain, and who ends up bringing Lizzie much more than that. Unfortunately, it all revolves around a histrionic fear of spinsterhood that resides not only in women, but in their male relatives.

Director Lisa Peterson has assembled a skilled and effective group of actors, who all turn in moving performances, despite the difficult task of convincing a modern audience that the greatest possible tragedy in a woman’s life is being without a man. The show is anchored by an excellent Johanna Day and buttressed by the adorable Ben Fox and by William Parry as the warm patriarch. The relationship between Lizzie and her father is strong and real, and thoroughly humanizes both characters. Graham Winton has the thankless job of playing the resident judgmental jerk, but he does it with skill if not style.

As for Lizzie’s two would-be lovers, Frank Wood offers a deep and subtle performance of a man who has been truly hurt, while Michael Laurence, in a showier role, comes off as a proto-hippie, overflowing with Native American rugs and talk of dreams and self-empowerment. Girls named Lizzie probably should avoid The Rainmaker, as the name gets slandered a good deal for being too solid and dependable.

Though The Rainmaker is old fashioned, there is a certain joy in watching such closed-off, cautious people finally get carried away. No doubt it was meant to be a sweeping euphoria, a flood of feeling – but actors can only do so much with what they’re given. The flood is, after all, only a reaction to the drought. And the director has sadly forgotten about the drought in the midst of all this overwrought traditionalism.

The Rainmaker is about desperation in time of drought, but there is no sense of parchedness in this production, and without that sense of heat, a crucial element is lost. Perhaps if they had produced it during the summer, it would infect the audience more with an essential thirst that evokes the aridity of a dusty plain. The Rainmaker’s actors are left holding the bag, and though they do it very well, there’s no making up for the lack of atmosphere.

The Rainmaker runs through April 9 at Arena Stage. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300.

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