The title character of “The Rainmaker” is an itinerant con man who promises he can bring precipitation to a drought-stricken Western town, for a substantial fee. But other characters in N. Richard Nash’s 1954 drama — which is being presented at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison through Aug. 18 — are responsible for its most outrageous behavior.
“You better listen to me!” the play’s main character, Lizzie (Monette Magrath), is told by her heartless brother, Noah (Benjamin Eakeley), at one point. “I’m the only one around here that loves you enough to tell you the truth! You’re plain! … Go look at yourself in the mirror — you’re plain!”
Lizzie is 30-ish and — horror of horrors! — unmarried, and still living on her family’s ranch with her father H.C. (Mark Elliot Wilson) and brothers Noah and Jim (Isaac Hickox-Young). She has a potential suitor in the town’s unmarried deputy sheriff, File (Corey Sorenson), but File is either playing hard-to-get or totally uninterested.
Even in a time of drought, when you might think H.C, Noah and Jim would have other things to worry about, they’re obsessed with getting Lizzie and File hitched. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance of that happening.
Enter the Rainmaker, known as Starbuck (Anthony Marble), who is primarily looking to make a few bucks from some suckers but still brings a glimpse of hope of the possibility of change to this sleepy 1950s setting.
Lizzie is, in some ways, a pre-feminist. She’s smart and sassy and, for the most part, refuses to dumb herself down to land herself a husband. She speaks her mind, no matter what the consequences.
But deep down, she hungers for marriage. And in one truly disturbing scene, she humiliates herself by becoming that what she despises: a silly, shallow flirt. It’s painful to watch.
Nash specified that the play takes place in “a western state on a summer day in a time of drought.” The 1956 film version, which co-starred Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster, set it in Depression Era Kansas.
In the program of the Shakespeare Theatre production, director Bonnie J. Monte (who is also the theater’s artistic director) writes that she chose to set it “on a cattle ranch on the Texas/Oklahoma border in 1953.”
Perhaps you could say that Nash is just reflecting a small-town, ’50s mindset by making all the characters, including Lizzie, believe that a woman needs a man to feel complete. But the bottom line is that some of “The Rainmaker” feels dated, or even jarring to modern sensibilities.
So, I’ve got some problems with the play itself. But I can’t really fault anything in the production. Magrath projects an appropriate mix of flintiness and vulnerability as Lizzie. Eakeley is grimly imposing as Noah, and Hickox-Young’s wide eyes and earnest vocal tone convey the essence of the dim but big-hearted, girl-crazy Jim, who provides much of the play’s comic relief.
And Marble — crucially — manages to be both oily and inspirational as Starbuck, the man of contradictory extremes.
Monte, who is also the play’s scenic designer, creates a nice sense of the dry, slow-paced stuffiness of the lives these characters live — before the Rainmaker brings some magic and poetry to their world, even if, as Lizzie tells him, he’s a fake, right down to his name.
“It sounds like you made it up!” she says.
She’s right, he tells her, adding, “You know what name I was born with? Smith! … Now what kind of handle is that for a fella like me? I needed a name that had the whole sky in it!”
“The Rainmaker” is, ultimately, a play with the whole sky in it, too. Though it’s got a lot of dirt in it, as well.
“The Rainmaker” will be presented by the Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University in Madison through Aug. 18; visit shakespearenj.org.
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