Chicago Theater Review: THE RAINMAKER (American Blues Theater at Greenhouse Theater Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 6, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

DELIVERANCE FROM DROUGHT

It’s a terrific recipe for powerful theater. Confront audiences with an unfinished situation amid a collective challenge–with seemingly no way out. Then introduce a mysterious stranger who, like a catalyst, changes everything, maybe even himself. It works wonders with The Music Man, The Petrified Forest, Holiday, Shane, The Lone Ranger, Peter Pan, and, especially, The Glass Menagerie, each of which contains a roguish outsider who brings hope and love to dead-end dreamers. That’s the fascinating function of the title character in N. Richard Nash’s justly celebrated The Rainmaker (the source for the Schmidt and Jones musical 110 in the Shade), now in an irresistible staging by American Blues Theater. (It’s the latest offering in their 30th anniversary “Seeing Is Believing” season–and you will do both.)

Steve Key, Linsey Page Morton and Vince Teninty

Set in the Dust Bowl at a cattle ranch where a vicious heat wave is killing the livestock, stopping the windmill and depleting the future, this classic American heartwarmer opens as just another hard-luck 24 hours in a torpid August, the latest deprivation of an unrelenting drought that’s as emotional as it is meteorological.

Lizzie Curry copes with her own everyday affliction, the growing fear that she’ll end up a spinster whose only happiness will be seeing her brothers marry, caring for their kids, and nursing her dad to his end. To avoid that dead end, her sparky, go-getter younger brother Jim, her skeptical, tough-loving older brother Noah, and her gruff but caring dad H.C. Curry want to match her up with File, the taciturn, divorced deputy sheriff. (“Get carried away!” H.C. tells Lizzie–and he almost means it literally.) But File seems as set in his bachelor ways as Lizzie is in her (pro-feminist) maiden independence. It’s a standoff–ruthless realism undermining expectations versus hapless hope–as stubborn and irreversible as the drought.

Still, hope can flourish even during famine: The arrival of Starbuck, a self-proclaimed rainmaker who promises the Curries to bring them a deluge for $100, breaks the impasse. Quickly this human dream-catcher has sold H.C. and Jim on the efficacy of banging a drum to attack rain-bearing cumulonimbus clouds and painting white arrows to push the lightning away from the farmstead. Doubting Noah remains unsold, but then this grinchy guy is equally certain that Lizzie is too plain to be anyone’s wife and should resign herself to making lemonade in the shade. (Considering her ordinariness, it’s hard to believe that Katharine Hepburn played her in the film, opposite a charm-laden Burt Lancaster.)

Steve Key & Linsey Page Morton

Happily, Starbuck, like Williams’ Gentleman Caller, saves his most potent persuasion for Lizzie, slowly convincing her that she’s pretty and deserves as much love as any of the local mantraps for whom, unlike Lizzie, honesty is not the best policy. Sweet-talking Starbuck may be a flim-flam con artist with multiple monikers (who’s wanted in several counties for promising to prevent tornadoes, which, technically, he actually did), but his forthright, captivating illusion of sincerity is enough to cure Lizzie of self-defeating despair—and to provoke File into seeing her as the person she really is.

No question, in creating Starbuck and Lizzie, Nash borrowed heavily from Tennessee Williams, just as he no doubt influenced Meredith Willson’s Professor Harold Hill and Marian Paroo, the local librarian. So what? Driven playwrights should borrow big to share the joy with later writers. Plus not since the 1930s has the metaphor of rain as rebirth meant as much as today (and not just in the Golden State).

Full of downhome decency and contagious wishful thinking, the formula works beautifully, especially when a master director like Edward Blatchford brings it to full flower in American Blues Theater’s radiant revival. Catnip for actors, Nash’s creation blesses everyone who takes its trip.

Matt Pratt, Danny Goldring, Linsey Page Morton and Vince Teninty

There’s no condescension to these open-hearted characters, just a hunger to help them that’s as burning as the dialogue. As self-effacing as a tumbleweed, Linsey Page Morton’s needy Lizzie is a model of pointless patience as she watches her dreams dry up like the crops–so much so that her awakening feels as refreshing and natural as a gullywasher in full flood. A human tonic with a killer smile, Steve Key’s electric and charismatic Starbuck is a very believable miracle worker–who this time does more good for others than for himself. (It was bound to happen sooner or later.) Stolid and sincere, Howie Johnson’s well-grounded, salt-of-the-earth File is that wonderful contradiction, a hard-boiled hoper: Gruff but game, File just needs to find that similarly sensible mate whose dreams are greater than the sum of their souls.

As the wary brother whose tough love could pass for pessimism, Vincent Teninty captures Noah’s protective passions, while winsome Matt Pratt delights as the bumptious brother who’ll use his fists (quicker than his brain) to defend Lizzie’s right to love. (As for romance, he’s having a summer fling with a town girl who sports a red hat.) Exuding quiet wisdom and invaluable experience, Chicago treasure Danny Goldring makes a fine father to this Curry clan, wiser than his irascible sons in letting people learn from their mistakes. Robert Breuler completes this terrific cast as a sheriff who sees the law as a tool as much as a weapon.

Interestingly, as with BoHo Theatre’s staging three years ago, American Blues Theatre so respects the intimacy of this domestic drama that they’ve blocked off the left side of their Greenhouse space to provide homespun seating for the remaining theatergoers. These lucky souls will be inevitably drawn into the Curry parlor (period-perfect and strangely nostalgic in Sarah Ross’ detailed and flexible settings). It’s just where you want to be.

photos by Johnny Knight

The Rainmaker
American Blues Theater
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2:30
Sat at 3 on Sep 19 & 26
ends on September 27, 2015
for tickets, call 773.404.7336 or visit www.AmericanBluesTheater.com

for info on Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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