Near the beginning of Rain follows the Plow: A Dust Opera the matriarch of the Walker family describes the many hardships of life on the plains in the 1930’s. “But the sky, the impossible sky!” she sings with reverence and love “this luminescent dome / it truly is our home.” To her, the grandeur of nature compensates for the trials of homesteading.
Similarly, Rain Follows the Plow’s minor flaws are far outweighed by the beauty of its original music. The show’s marketing promises folk music performed with authenticity and compassion, and it delivers.
From the moment you enter the theatre, it is clear that this show is all about the music. The stage is set with an impressive array of acoustic instruments (banjo, stand-up bass and mandolin, among others) and old-timey microphones. It looks like the set for a live performance of A Prairie Home Companion. Rain Follows the Plow is performed concert-style with minimal staging and narration, no dialogue and compelling projections of historical photos from the Library of Congress archives acting as the set.
Through a 17-song cycle, composer Stephen R. Coffee and crew follow the Walker family, Miles (played by Coffee), Ruth, daughter Jessie and son Billy, from their first days on the plains through the years of devastating droughts and dust storms known as the dust bowl. The centerpiece of the narrative arc is three beautifully rendered songs sung by matriarch Ruth (Caroline Ferrante), as letters to her sister that chronicle her journey from optimism (“Impossible Sky”) to desperate hope (“If It Rains”) to disbelieving grief (“Can It Be?”) as the dust storms intensify and “dust pneumonia” takes the lives of many in her community. Between most numbers, the Narrator (Bill Davis, who is also the show’s Director) provides historical context.
The music is top notch. These guys are professionals and it shows. The sound is rich and full, with effortless harmonies and evocative lyrics recalling folk music greats like Woodie Guthrie. Standouts include the tragic story song “Black Sunday” (sung with maturity by the young John Keating), Jeff Smith’s smooth-talking take on a mercenary “weatherologist” selling promises of rain to the drought-stricken farmers (“Show You the Rain”) and the mournful “Indian Joe” (sung by Coffee), a top five winner in the Great American Song Contest.
Rain Follows the Plow
Music by Stephen R. Coffee
Details and tickets
Not all the songs are winners, but most of them are. Even when they’re not, the cast sings with honesty and clarity, inviting us to “listen to our stories, my friends” and I found myself leaning forward to accept their invitation.
The show is at its best when it lets the music speak for itself. When they do introduce props or movement, it seems forced and in jarring contrast with the honest simplicity of the music. The narration, which is of the “aw shucks” variety, also feels superfluous and out of rhythm with the rest of the performance. The song lyrics and projections tell us everything we need to know.
Despite these few minor flaws, Rain Follows the Plow is well worth the ticket price for lovers of folk music, history and authentic storytelling.
Rain Follows the Plow by: Stephen R. Coffee. Directed by: Bill Davis. Featuring: Bill Davis (Narrator), Caroline Ferrante (Ruth), Tom Bodine (Chappy, Woody), Katie Chambers (Sally), Jim Clark (Jimmy Dale), Kestrel Coffee (Jessie, Alice), Ron Goad (Scratchy, Slappy), Vic Cook (Indian Joe), Chuck Haskins (Fiddlin’ Frank), Niels Jonker (Lars Svensson), John Keating (Billy), Steve Potter (Junior Buggwater), Jeff Smith (Junior Buggwater), Elizabeth Stone (Mama), Greg Vickers (Elmore, Woody), Timothy White (Woody, Chappy). Reviewed by: Amy Couchoud.