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Why "The Rainmaker" succeeds where others struggle

On "dated" material

"THE RAINMAKER": Jimmy (Mason Quinn) and H.C. (Elliot Weiner) in early 1950s Lakewood. Photo credit: Dean Lapin

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I hope Lakewood Playhouse Artistic Director John Munn won't mind me telling you this, but a week before his company's production of The Rainmaker opened, we had an earnest conversation about "dated" play scripts. John lamented the fact that critics are often dismissive of 20th-century scripts audiences know and love. It's true we critics share a heightened regard for novelty but, for the record, I don't think a script is dated just because it's old. It's about how we digest dramatic content. Does the play still converse with us, or do we process it merely as a museum display of past beliefs? I say "converse" because a relevant play opens a dialogue. As it comments on its theme from a fixed vantage point, we talk back by injecting emotions and willing its protagonists to succeed.

N. Richard Nash's Rainmaker is just shy of 60 years old, but is it dated? Not a bit. It's the story of a young woman who sees herself as plain, a gruff deputy who wishes he could hold her attention, and a charismatic stranger who promises rain and revival. Director Casi Wilkerson hangs her production on a marvelous lead performance by Tanya Barber. The trope of a woman who lets her hair down and becomes beautiful is as haggard as they come, but Barber literally transforms before our eyes as Lizzie Curry. She brings out the best in Bruce Story as Starbuck, the grifter, as well.

The play's funnier than I remembered, thanks in large part to Mason Quinn's just-over-the-top portrayal of Lizzie's guileless brother, Jim. As an adopted Oklahoman, however, I couldn't help but grade the show's accents as a mixed bag. Barber's drawl is impeccable. Elliot Weiner's correct to pronounce ornery as "AHN-ree," a phenomenon that occurs statewide, but don't be afraid of those R's! Oklahomans land hard on theirs. Judy Cullen's set eliminates two seating areas in favor of a long wall that cuts through the space diagonally. This design gives her increased climate control and plays nicely with John Burton's soundtrack of ranch ambience and 1920s country.

This is one of those shows that seeks to restore our hope for the impossible. Sorry, folks, but I'm no sucker for miracles. The rules of physics are inviolable laws, not suggestions. I doubt the presence of secretive deities who rain favors on the faithful - yet I do believe in the improbable. Two hours before opening night performance, a man was captured who tossed bombs at police like he was playing goddamn Mario Kart. He was taken alive, and imagine the odds against that. This show's primary job is to open our hearts; on that score, it richly succeeds. The teenaged girls behind me could scarcely contain themselves...

Did I mist up? Well, maybe, but ... you know, it had been an emotional day.


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