By N. Richard Nash
Through Aug. 18
Shakespeare Theatre of
36 Madison Ave., Madison
By GWEN OREL
It’s not the play you think it is. That is, if when you hear the words “The Rainmaker,” you think about one of those plays where a con man sparks love and he’s not such a con, like “The Music Man.”
Or, it is, but only kind of. There is a con man/poet who comes to town, promising to magically make rain, and he does change lives.
And yet it’s not about that, not exactly. N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker” is a gorgeous, heartbreaking story of people whose hearts are thirsty and yearning. Loneliness is like a drought of the heart.
And it’s a solid 20 minutes before the title character even appears.
Not one but two critics have told me this is one of their favorite plays, Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal and Simon Saltzman of Curtainup.com.
Count me in. Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production gently, uncloyingly, makes every moment count.
So good and affecting is this play that it ought to be done in every theater department and community theater. It had a Broadway run in 1954, and was made into a film starring Katherine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster in 1957. It’s the basis for the 1963 musical “110 in the Shade.”
Director Bonnie J. Monte writes in her program notes that she burst into tears when she finished reading it, after she saw two students perform a scene from it a year ago.
Long before the entrance of the boasting, poetical Starbuck (Anthony Marble), you’ll have fallen for the Curry family: no-nonsense oldest brother Noah (Benjamin Eakeley), who is often (in his mind) cruel to be kind to his younger siblings, happy-go-lucky younger brother Jim (Isaac Hickox-Young), who is not quite so dumb as Noah keeps telling him he is; and blonde, funny Lizzie (Monette Magrath) who calls herself plain, who her brothers and father worry might become an old maid.
Dad, H.C. (Mark Elliot Wilson) understands her, and much else.
Lizzie wins your heart right away: she tells her family about her weeklong visit to a cousin with sons (they’d hoped someone would fall for her). When she went down to dinner in a pretty dress and heels, she says, one of the boys asked her how much she weighed.
She answered, adding that she had her own teeth and was 17 hands from the ground, blowing out her lips like a horse.
Lizzie, you see, can’t flirt and act silly. Noah tells her that empty-headed flirting is “the only way a man gets got.” Is it?
Her menfolk try to get lonely Deputy Sheriff File (handsome Corey Sorenson) to come to dinner. We know there’s something bubbling there: Lizzie complains that File makes a point of ignoring her, and Dad replies that “when a man makes a point of ignoring you, he ain’t really ignoring you a’tall.”
In his own way, File is as awkward as she is: he won’t even accept a loving dog from his boss, gentle Sheriff Thomas (Nick Plakias), because as a boy he had a raccoon that ran away and a dog that was killed. He says his wife died, but everyone knows ran she out on him.
The more Sorenson’s File tries to hide his feelings, the more we see them timidly peeking out.
Enter Anthony Marble as the rainmaker, Starbuck. H.C. isn’t taken in any more than Noah is, but hires him anyway. Dad is wise. Magic could be real. Why not?
Starbuck promptly gives everyone tasks: beat a drum, paint an arrow, tie the legs of a mule.
The old-fashioned set (designed by Monte), features a parched big sky. In keeping with the plainness of the Midwest, there is no entrance music, but just a little banjo and country now and then between scenes. Sound Designer Steven L. Beckel’s work adds to the play’s gentle lyricism, as do Hugh Hanson’s costumes and Matthew J. Weisgable’s lights.
But the nuanced, rich performances from the cast are a credit to Monte and to the Shakespeare Theatre.
Starbuck, isolated in his own way, gets Lizzie to see her own beauty (Magrath is plausibly awkward, as well as plausibly beautiful). He tells her, “One day your looking glass will be the man that loves you.” He says that “Lizzie” is too plain a name for her. What about Diana? Or, “Melisandre?”
She tells him that small dreams matter too, like someone asking her if his blue suit is pressed. Like, she says, her voice breaking, the word “husband.” Magrath quietly rips your heart into your mouth.
When the cops — meaning File and his boss — come in search of the notorious “Tornado John,” aka Starbuck, it’s a defining moment for everyone: the family, the rainmaker, the sheriff and his deputy.
Faith wins. Love wins.
That water on my face?
It’s just rain.