The Rainmaker is no dramatic downpour
The Rainmaker is a gentle, dated comedy, well-suited to the generally older audience of the Aurora Fox, but it has flickers of life. The play, written in the 1950s, is set in the drought-stricken West of the '30s, where a family of bachelors — kindly, laid-back paterfamilias H.C. and his two sons, Noah and Jim — apparently spend more time fretting about daughter Lizzie's spinsterhood than about the slow death of their ranch. Which makes sense, because in this world a woman without a man is more like a fish deprived of water than one without a bicycle, and poor Lizzie's slow desiccation serves as a metaphor for the family's parched land and dying calves.
Naturally, the only remedy is for a robustly sexual and otherworldly stranger to burst into this closed environment. Think Music Man, where a con artist wakes an insular little town to the joys of creativity; think Picnic, in which a traveling stranger sparks the dormant sexual frenzy of half the women in the place; think Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending, a much deeper, more poetic and more dangerous examination of the mayhem unleashed when the Other — in the haunted person of musician Val — arrives.
In The Rainmaker, the stranger is Starbuck, a fast-talking, charismatic con man who assures the family that for a hundred dollars he'll summon rain. Does he find a way into Lizzie's disappointment-encrusted heart? Of course he does. Does he do it by persuading her to let down her long hair and telling her, "Why, Lizzie, you're beautiful"? Close. Like Dale Carnegie, he preaches affirmation, making her say "I'm pretty" over and over again until she finally erupts with "I'm beautiful." There's no actual sex for them — or if there is, the script doesn't admit it — since no one was actually having sex in the 1950s.
Corny as hell, but it works to some extent. Because while we might mock the idea that getting a man is the sole mark of a woman's worth and that being ostentatiously feminine is essential to that pursuit ("Can a woman take lessons in being a woman?" Lizzie asks plaintively), and grind our teeth at the condescension of Starbuck's reassurance, "You're a woman. All women are pretty," there are elements of truth to the script. Freedom and sexuality have long been seen as linked; that's why, in the 1960s, so many of us thought free love was revolutionary. In addition, since everyone tends to yearn for something, we understand the potency of the dream Starbuck sells Lizzie, and also the gulf between her down-to-earth dream of constant and loving companionship and his grandiose fantasies.
Tupper C. Cullum is the quiet linchpin of this production, showing us the patience and backbone behind H.C.'s gentleness and evincing a kind of steady grace, both physical and mental. Older brother Noah, as the farm manager, feels the weight of the drought most keenly. He's a man of many worries and little empathy, and he takes it on himself to tell Lizzie — in the name of brotherly compassion — that she must resign herself to the fact that she's plain and will always be an old maid. Michael Morgan makes us feel for this dour, negative man. Michael Bouchard is a little too high-pitched as younger brother Jim, who's fallen for a local girl despite his big brother's conviction that she'll ruin him. Paul Borillo isn't the Starbuck you expect: a man young, juicy and impetuous enough to seduce everyone he encounters and believe his own lies. Borillo is a more mature figure, and I wonder if his portrayal wouldn't work better if, instead of acting at full pitch and against type, he made Starbuck gently and ironically persuasive. Still, he's an excellent actor, and he does communicate the emotional reality of the role. On the other end of the spectrum, Jake Walker is very young and innocent-looking for File, the down-home guy too badly hurt by a previous love to stay in the game, and the man whom Lizzie eventually accepts. Karen Slack is anything but laconic and laid-back as Lizzie. Her voice is sometimes high and harsh; her antics when she satirically mimics the soft, sweet, bunny girls she both envies and despises are almost grotesque. In some ways, this makes the interlude in which she exposes her longing and vulnerability to Starbuck more moving.
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