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The Rainmaker: Why We Keep Reviving That Old Chestnut 

Santa Monica's Edgemar Center has a new production

Thursday, Jan 17 2013
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A con-man/drifter walks into a small town, usually in the Midwest, and seduces a vulnerable local female. He not only seduces her, he awakens her to her true self and potential, which the opinions of others — her family and society — have been suffocating.

Oh, brother. Get the broom and sweep off the cobwebs.

The threat of the drifter to entrenched ideas and ideals took fire across American stages and screens in the mid–20th century — from Gian Carlo Menotti's light opera The Old Maid and the Thief, to Meredith Wilson's 1957 Broadway musical, The Music Man, to William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize–winning drama, Picnic, which New York City's Roundabout Theatre Company has just opened in a revival.

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The year following Picnic's New York premiere, the Cort Theater in that same city hosted N. Richard Nash's gentle comedy about a con man and a spinster — The Rainmaker, starring Geraldine Page and Darren McGavin. In 1956, Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster starred in its movie version. (The stage musical version is called 110 in the Shade.) The Roundabout revived The Rainmaker in 1999 with Jayne Atkinson and Woody Harrelson. It showed up locally in 2008 in a production by Glendale's A Noise Within, and is back in a production by Henry Jaglom and the Rainbow Theater Company at Santa Monica's Edgmar Center for the Arts.

Why?

The romantic lure of the outsider can be traced to Romeo and Juliet and Marlowe's Dr. Faustus — all capitalizing on the exciting sin of tinkering with the unknown. Very sexy.

It's not that the idea is dated. If an idea isn't dated, it's probably not a very good idea.

Rather, it's the play's treatment of the idea that lends the impression of a rusting artifact — the kind of midcentury American realism in which every metaphor is articulated and explained. It's not sufficient that a drifter named Bill Smith changed his name to Starbuck (Robert Standley), it's that he has to explain to spinster Lizzie (Tanna Frederick), whom he alone finds pretty (or says he does), the reason he changed his name.

"The name you choose for yourself is more yours than the one you're born with," he explains. "Star" is from the firmament, and "buck" — you get the idea. And that's how he sees himself and what consequently determines the quality of how he governs his life. All of which he spells out, and these spellings-out are the cobwebs.

Starbuck's capacity to invent reality — such as his ability to bring rain to a 1937 drought-plagued cattle farm in the Midwest, for which he charges a nonrefundable $100 cash deposit — has the local sheriffs (Scott Roberts and Ralph Guzzo) tailing him, but that's another subplot.

When he repeats her name, Lizzie, the "L" rolls off his tongue so that it thuds on the ground between them. Her very name describes her identity as a drudge. He cobbles together a new name for her from a legend that butchers classical mythology. She, however, has read her ancient Greeks — as had the author, who studied classical philosophy before tossing that in for the lucrative profession of playwriting — and she tells him with some authority that his stories are nonsense bordering on lies. He prefers to call them dreams, he says.

When, in The Tempest, Prospero says, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on," it's the affirmation of a magic and transcendence woven into the play's very structure. When Starbuck talks about his dreams, it's like listening to some guy on the subway who dresses too loudly, talks too much and has lost his way. The novelty wears thin long before the guy has stopped talking.

In lesser hands than director Jack Heller's, watching this play would be like trudging through a slightly dank, primeval marsh without rubber boots — the kind of experience where you might say, "Well, isn't this historic and curious. Where can I dry my socks?"

There is some of this quality, particularly at the start of the production. Though the play is set in 1937 — we know this from set dresser Phil Tran's wall calendar — on a cattle ranch, Christopher Stone's set has the pinewood bannisters and walls you'll still find in mountain cabins up in Wrightwood and Idyllwild. It's breakfast time in the Curry household, where dad H.C. Curry (the amiable Stephen Howard) is cooking breakfast for his dour son Noah (David Garver). This is because the real cook, H.C.'s daughter, Lizzie (Tanna Frederick), hasn't gotten back from a visit to some cousins — the humiliating purpose being to snag herself a husband. Though the cattle are all dying in the drought, the men are more terrified that the independent-minded, homely young woman will become an old maid. That's when you might feel the moisture creeping into your socks.

Howard's patriarch is endearing and wise, in the style of Will Geer's grandpa in TV's The Waltons. There's a younger son named Jim, played by Benjamin Chamberlain, in a goofy, mentally challenged interpretation that, while supported by the script, pushes the comedy into the style of a sitcom.

This style almost goes off the rails when Standley's Starbuck waltzes in, licking his lips at Lizzie and making his promises to save the farm — promises that threaten to make fools of people who are suffering and desperate.

The production is saved in part by its linchpin, Frederick's droll, rat-smart Lizzie. With subtlety and composure that often belies the text, she knows who she is and what she wants. Though the play is over-written, Frederick's performance lies so entrenched beneath the lines, it's as though she absorbs the play's excesses so that they don't even show.

Her terrific performance is not enough to turn the play into a classic, but it does provide enough of an emotional pull to reveal the reasons why it keeps getting staged.

THE RAINMAKER | By N. Richard Nash | Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica | Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; through March 24 | (310) 399-3666 | edgemarcenter.org

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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