News Column

'Rainmaker' at People's Light: Predictable parable that delivers the unexpected

September 24, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 24--Is old-fashioned theater necessarily out-of-date theater? The answer in the People's Light & Theatre Company production of The Rainmaker, which plays in Malvern, through Oct. 13, prompts a complex response.

The 1954 N. Richard Nash play is now best known in its 1956 VistaVision film version with Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster, as well as the musical 110 in the Shade that has revisited Broadway in recent years.

So here we are with the original: At a time when plays are often one 90-minute act, this is a three-act play (performed here in two) in a production that's mostly well cast, atmospherically designed by Wilson Chin, and beautifully directed by Abigail Adams. It's a serious, accomplished revival of a play whose characters remain appealing and engaging.

Seen in conventional plot/characters terms, though, the rural-Iowa story of a traveling con man and a plain, repressed, unmarried woman -- and the family that's desperate to get her safely married -- is a predictable parable of realized womanhood.

Seen as a cultural artifact, though, many new avenues of meaning appear. The 1950s were the stone age of self-actualization, so audiences may not have been so used to characters' probing each other's inner feelings. Written amid the witch hunts of Joe McCarthy, Nash's rainmaker, named Starbuck of all things, embodies the role of the artists in a suspicious, postwar America: Nobody understands what he does or how he does it.

The other influence is Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, first seen in 1946. It seems to be the floor plan for Nash's Rainmaker characters, who are all shoved out of their tiny worlds by an interloper, sometimes with traumatic results.

So, yes, The Rainmaker still delivers, but not what you'd expect.

Bravely, this production eschews glamour. The actors all look their parts -- without the form-fitting cowboy outfits given to Lancaster in the film version. As Lizzie, Nancy McNulty is made to look plain, though it's hard to imagine any modern man not being snared by the charismatic intelligence she projects. John Jarboe, as her brother Jim, is faced with portraying a less-learned native intelligence, which he does with a kind of invention that delivers the show's best laughs.

Michael Sharon's rainmaker so avoids the fast-talking con man approach you wonder if he's miscast. He doesn't seem nimble enough for the life he has chosen. But in important moments, he conveys an intense emotionalism that gives the character so much extra dimension, how could Starbuck not be an artist in disguise?

THEATER REVIEW

The Rainmaker

Through Oct. 13 at the People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets: $26-$46. 610-644-3500

www.PeoplesLight.org.

dstearns@phillynews.com.

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