Chicago Theatre Review
Ending the Drought
The Rainmaker – American Blues Theatre
In N. Richard Nash’s poetic drama a drought is ravaging the nation during the Great Depression. The lack of rain means strict rationing of water. The crops are slowly shriveling away and the livestock are dying a painful death. But there’s another drought in this story and it involves a young woman whose spirit has dried up. Lizzie’s hopes for the future feel as parched as the Curry’s farmland. Hope has withered and been blown away by the hot winds sweeping across the plains. Suddenly, the front door opens and a stranger named Starbuck appears, promising to bring rain to the scorched ranch for a nonrefundable fee of one hundred dollars. Lizzie and her pragmatic brother Noah are skeptical; but patriarch H.C. and his optimistic younger son Jim are willing to take a chance on this man. By the end of this beautiful play, Starbuck has changed everyone’s life, including his own, and ended both the drought that’s ravaging the land and the drought that’s destroyed Lizzie’s dreams.
As a writer, N. Richard Nash produced several novels and screenplays, as well as a number of theatrical works. But he’s best known for this one eloquently-written, optimistic play about hopes, taking chances and fulfilling one’s dream. Nash’s play, inspired by his sister Mae, grew from a one-act television drama into a full, three-act play for the stage. It premiered on Broadway in 1954 and became a hit that starred Geraldine Page; it was later revived in 1999, with Woody Harrelson and Jayne Atkinson in the roles of Starbuck and Lizzie. The play was adapted for film, starring Katherine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster, and was eventually turned into the musical “110 in the Shade,” by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones. Nash’s play has been translated into more than 40 languages and remains one of the most frequently-produced of all American plays.
Celebrating their anniversary, American Blues Theater opens their 30th season with this impressive production. The company’s co-founder, Edward Blatchford, has directed Nash’s play in two-acts, offering two hours filled with warmth and humor, heartbreak and drama. His production is folksy, with a cozy, welcomed, old-fashioned sense of home and a family. That’s not to say that the production lacks energy or spontaneity. It moves along, filled with exquisite bursts of joy and unexpected surprises, simple beauty and a reminder that we should never give up or let others squash our dreams.
Blatchford’s production is nestled on a cleverly-designed, multi-purposed set by Sarah Ross. The Curry’s farmhouse easily and quickly unfolds to reveal the Sheriff’s office and the tack room out back. Sarah Hughey has designed a lighting plot that nicely illuminates the action while creating the appropriate mood. Christopher J. Neville’s costumes nicely recall the late 1930’s, while Joe Cerqua’s sound design and original music take this production to another level.
This seven member cast are all talented individuals, yet together they blend to form one powerful acting ensemble. Linsey Page Morton, so brilliant in Northlight’s recent production of “Lost in Yonkers,” is the heart of this show. As Lizzie, Ms. Morton is at times a girlish young lady, still clinging defiantly to her dreams despite all odds. But then suddenly, Ms. Morton sheds that optimistic sparkle and reveals Lizzie’s sadness. In a blink, the young lady becomes a discouraged, disheartened woman, brought down by the harsh words of her brother Noah. Ms. Morton is breathtaking and the real life force of this production. She’s matched by Steve Key’s confident, storytelling dreamer, Starbuck. Mr. Key doesn’t try to be another Burt Lancaster or Woody Harrelson; he’s created his own Starbuck, a man who’s grounded and realistic, a smooth-talker, but never over-the-top. Theatergoers will know this kind of man. They exist everywhere. Yet here is a Starbuck who isn’t so full of himself that he can’t learn something from Lizzie, as well. And Mr. Blatchford’s direction of the famous tack room scene is, in his skilled hands, beautifully touching and simply played; but it’s also a tribute to the talent and sensitivity of his two marvelous actors that it works so well.
Danny Goldring makes a solid, sympathetic father in his portrayal of H.C. Curry. The warmth he conveys is nicely balanced by both his giddiness and steadfastness. H.C.’s confrontation with Noah is one of his finest moments. And as Mr. Goldring gives over to Starbuck’s wild scheme, we witness this man’s hopes and dreams gradually blossoming again, as if watered by the mere promise of rain. Matt Pratt is delightfully captivating as Jim. Sometimes played as almost mentally handicapped, Mr. Pratt’s character is just a young, naive optimist who, unlike his older brother Noah, still believes in miracles, magic and love. Mr. Pratt’s good-looking Jim brings much heart, cheer and idealism to this production. Vincent Teninty’s Noah is the complete opposite. He’s a practical realist and the ranch’s bookkeeper, who’s taken on the financial survival of his family. In Mr. Teninty’s portrayal, dreams only occur while sleeping soon to be forgotten in the daylight. It’s facts and figures that form the reality of his world, and Noah feels it’s his place to constantly remind his star-gazing family of this. When he forces Lizzie to look in the mirror, telling her that she’s plain and should just resign herself to being an old maid, the audience sheds a tear. But Mr. Teninty keeps Noah from becoming a villain by finally seeing and joining in the transformation Starbuck has brought to the rest of his family.
As File, Howie Johnson is excellent. His character, a hard, practical man, cut from the same cloth as Noah, has experienced rejection that’s wounded him deeply. He claims to be a widower, even though the town knows his wife simply walked out on him. Mr. Johnson’s confrontations with Lizzie are sweet and honest. We watch File journey from awkward schoolboy to a man who finally understands and acknowledges his emotional needs. We learn so much about this lonely man from his initial scene, as he refuses to accept a dog, offered by his boss and friend, the Sheriff. Robert Breuler is irresistible as the Sheriff. Playing this character as an easygoing man who’s seen it all and understands his deputy from years of experience, Mr. Breuler brings most of the humor to this production through his unusual, almost aimless line readings and reactions. So wonderful in Steppenwolf’s “Airline Highway” and Route 66’s “Cicada,” Mr. Breuler is the comic highlight of this show.
American Blues Theater has opened its 30th season with a bang. This production of one of America’s best-loved classics is being presented with a genuineness and simplicity that recalls a gentler time of wall telephones, wireless radios and an era when dreams were treasured because they inspired hope. Life, although harder, was simple and offered a beauty in its innocence. For younger audiences unfamiliar with Nash’s lovely play, this is a wonderful opportunity to experience its warmth and wonder. But for those who have met the Curry’s before, this production will not only bring back fond memories but will offer unique, new treasures, shining a sparkling new light on some old ideas before the raindrops begin to fall.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 28-September 27 by American Blues Theater at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.AmericanBluesTheater.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.