By: Debbie Minter Jackson
The Rainmaker Arena Stage
The Rainmaker feels so contemporary; it’s hard to believe it’s been around for fifty years. Packed with themes of love and yearning, laced with messages about self-worth, confidence, and the redemptive power of truth, there’s a reason why it was so successful on Broadway, as a movie–who can forget Katherine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster in the title roles-as well as a musical, “110 in the Shade.” It hits all the marks. Arena’s stark production goes to the heart of the story, strips away any pretense, exposes the basic issues without glamour or frill, and hits the mark, too.
The unique staging requirements of the Fichandler always bring a bare and vulnerable reality to its productions since the audience surrounds the actors on all sides resulting in total exposure, no place to hide. The play opens on an empty set; just a lone cowboy hat hangs off in a corner. The story is set up by the Curry men, a father and two brothers all fixated on the single and looming spinster status of sister Lizzy. When she finally enters, Lizzy, wonderfully played by Johanna Day establishes the pace and emotional stakes of the play. Day is a delight, and we find ourselves engaged and caring about her well being. She physically works the immense stage as comfortably as if she’s in her own living room with ease and naturalness. The family dynamics also work nicely with William Parry portraying Pop Curry as cool headed and genuine, Graham Winton nails the surefooted older, “wiser” brother Noah, the acerbic truth teller, and Ben Fox is the playful and scattered younger brother Jim.
The love interests reflect the most telling director’s choices in this production. Deputy File, played by Frank Wood is an ordinary “everyman,” nondescript, and basically uninteresting. Was he intentionally toned down to contrast with the flamboyant Starbuck? Was there a need to make him so bland and blah to oppose the flashy fly Rainmaker? Michael Lawrence as Starbuck, on the other hand, is a gorgeous wonder and makes an almost surreal entrance through foggy lights and mystical sound effects like some magical creature has pranced out on the set. And flamboyant he is, totally different from everybody in every way with his flashy style of clothing, preacher-toned raspy voice, his darting dancing movements, even performing a handstand to make a point. Still, the play has to make us believe that Starbuck, though initially rejected becomes eventually not just accepted but trusted, embraced and even needed by the family. Starbuck, the ultimate charlatan, an outlandish “confidence” i.e. con man wanted by the law, promises rain to ease a killer drought for a price. All the characters have underlying motivations to take the risks that set the deal in motion. Does it work? The opening night audience resoundingly agreed that it did.
The director, Lisa Peterson steps out on faith and relies on the script to show how a charismatic and perceptive Rainmaker, with just his powers of persuasion and imagination, sprinkled with charm, sparks new realizations and unexpected twists in various lives. His pivotal scene transforming Lizzie’s disparaging perception of herself is absolute magic. Assisted by creative minimalist set design, the director guides the characters’ developing faith in Starbuck, their own confidence, and in Lizzy’s case, belief in her own beauty and womanhood. In this winsome production, Starbuck, as The Rainmaker, like some electromagnetic force, strikes a lightening bolt, almost literally as well as figuratively and serves as a catalyst to propel the characters towards self-discovery, himself included, and with enough faith, enlightens our own paths, as well.