Written in the 1950’s and set in the 1930’s, modern audiences may find it tough to get past the basic plot points of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker, the Sonoma Arts Live production running now at the Sonoma Community Center. The days of women fearing “spinsterhood” if they’re not married before they’re thirty are long gone, and then there’s the whole “woman falling for a con man” trope. But if you can get past that, you’ll find a story about perseverance and personal growth told really well by a talented ensemble.
It’s the story of the Curry family, owners of a struggling, drought-stricken ranch somewhere in the west. Patriarch H.C. (a laconic and warm Montgomery Paulsen,) and his sons Noah (an intense Nick Gallagher) and Jim (a lively Nick Moore) are doing their best to marry off their daughter/sister Lizzy (a feisty Abbey Lee), a woman who makes attracting a beau much more difficult by being intelligent, independent, and – horror-of-horrors – “plain.” After an unsuccessful out-of-town “tryout”, they set their sights on single Sheriff’s Deputy File (a stoic but earnest Matthew Loewenstein.) File’s been wounded by the loss of his wife and isn’t ready to return Lizzy’s apparent interest.
Enter Bill Starbuck (an exuberant Tyler McKenna), claiming to be a rainmaker who, for $100 cash, will crack the heavens wide open and bring a torrent of salvation from the sky in the form of water. Lizzy sees him for what he is, but H.C. – figuring he’s got nothing to lose – engages him. Soon the rainmaker has injected himself into the family. Lizzy may see him for what he is, but Starbuck sees her for what she can’t. A lot will happen to the family in the next 24 hours, but will it rain before the Sheriff (an amiable Rick Love) comes to cart Starbuck away?
Director Patrick Nims has cast well for this production. The family dynamic is well-played by all with particularly impressive work done by Gallagher as older brother Noah. He provides the “realistic” view of life as he sees it, but his view borders on cruelty when it comes to Lizzy. Many of the play’s lighter moments are provided by Moore as younger brother Jim, an eternal optimist, somewhat of a romantic, and staunch defender of his sister. Paulsen is quietly effective as their father. The characters who have the greatest arc are Lizzy and File, and Lee and Loewenstein handle their transformations beautifully. As the catalyst for these transformations, McKenna’s Starbuck strikes the right balance between con man and dreamer.
Sonoma Arts Live productions continue to utilize interesting sets, with Bruce Lackovic’s large but sparsely-framed set evoking both the sense of home and the damage that drought brings. The design, however, led to what may be the greatest number of performer entrances and exits through an audience that I’ve ever seen in a single show, and those do tend to take an audience out of the moment.
The Rainmaker is a product of its time, but there was a time when society did think and act in the ways presented in this play. What is universal in this piece is the importance of having dreams and in believing in oneself. The journey that Lizzy takes from her initial belief that she’s destined to live the life of an “old maid” to the self-realization that she is beautiful is superbly handled in this rather sweet production.
Presented by Sonoma Arts Live
through October 29
Thurs – Sat @ 7:30pm, Sun @ 2pm AND 7:30pm
Sonoma Community Center
276 E Napa St
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-4626 ext 1
Photos by Marina Fusco Nims