Directed by Edward Blatchford
Produced by American Blues Theater
Playing at the Greenhouse, Chicago
A Cute Story about Taking Risks for Love
American Blues Theater opens its thirtieth season with a production of Richard Nash’s 1954 The Rainmaker which, rather than being cloying, is simply a story with an optimistic outlook. The dramatic subject—loneliness caused by economic deprivation, anxiety over appearances, and fear of hurt—remain relevant as ever. The play’s central hope that a rogue will turn out to be a gallant is sentimental to the point of risking credibility. But under the direction of Edward Blatchford, one of the company’s co-founders, this production is humorous, dramatic, and emotionally honest enough that the characters earn their respective endings, to the audience’s satisfaction.
A drought is oppressing an unnamed state in the west. The time is apparently around that of the dust bowl. In any case, the house Sarah E. Ross designed for the Curry family, though plain and worn, is quite beautiful, and clearly well-cared for. Within lives H.C. (Danny Goldberg), a widower, with his two grown sons: responsible, ruthless Noah, and immature, affectionate Jim (Vincent Teninty and Matt Pratt). They are awaiting the return of H.C.’s daughter, Lizzie (Linsey Page Morton), a kind-hearted introvert with little in the way of a social life. Since she is getting older, H.C. had hoped the trip he sent her on would open up romantic possibilities. When she gets home, the family is disappointed that she wasn’t able to charm her hosts. Lizzie gets anxious easily, and lacks the confidence to make herself attractive. However, there is a man she has a crush on, the sheriff’s deputy File (Howie Johnson), and the men decide to invite him over for dinner.
That plan fails, too. File is divorced, but tells everyone he’s a widower. The man is so afraid of loss that the sheriff (Robert Breuler) has a hard time even convincing him to adopt a dog. Soon after the Currys arrive, their conversation turns into a fight. The brothers are also at odds. Jim has been dating a woman with a reputation for promiscuity, and Noah believes she’s trying to trap him. Just as they are resigned to another tense family dinner, a mysterious man called Starbuck (Steve Key) invites himself in. Starbuck claims that for one hundred dollars, he can conjure rain. To Noah and Lizzie’s dismay, H.C. and Jim are interested in the man, and pay him the money (well, they’re not so dismayed by Jim). To Noah, this is the worst example yet of his sacrifices and wisdom going unappreciated, but H.C., noting Starbuck’s good looks and charm, has another use in mind for him.
Though Starbuck’s an obvious fake, Steve Key plays him with such lively innocence that he’s impossible not to like. Crucially, it is plausible that he lives by his wits because of his love for fantasy, and that the ridiculous tasks he assigns the Currys are meant to be fun without much malice (other than telling Noah to tie a mule’s legs together, after he has been particularly harsh). He’s a good match for Matt Pratt’s Jim, who is just as peppy and thoughtlessly selfish without being nearly as bright, and an ideological opponent for Teneinty’s honest, pessimistic, stifling Noah. Caught between their two ways of thinking, Morton’s Lizzie is sensible and tragicomic. Her monologue envisioning herself as a spinster aunt is a bit of humor that is just as funny and poignant now as sixty years ago. Blatchford’s benevolent vision of the play is most embodied by Goldring’s H.C., whose amiability and obliviousness to strife makes him seem like a sitcom father, but who actually is quite wise, and courageous in his risks. Of course The Rainmaker is a fantasy, and a down-homey one at that, but Nash’s advice isn’t bad, nor were his observations of how people think. American Blues Theater’s production takes the problems of its characters, especially Lizzie, seriously enough to create engaging drama, while demonstrating why life should be approached with openness and a positive attitude. It’s the sincerity that makes it work.
This how has been Jeff recommended.
Playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $29-39; to order, call 773-404-7336 or visit AmericanBluesTheater.com. Plays Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm with select Saturday matinees through September 27. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.