— Kenton Klassen, Pippa Johnstone, Andrew Wheeler, Ryan Scramstad. Photo by Emily Cooper.
This seems to be the month for professional Vancouver companies to blow the dust off mid-century American classics that have generally been consigned to community theatres and high schools. Bob Frazer’s osimous theatre just closed a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town that showed how moving and entertaining that old chestnut can still be. Now it’s Pacific Theatre’s turn with Ron Reed’s staging of The Rainmaker as the company’s season-opener.
Wilder was an accomplished playwright, and his gentle slice of Americana sings with both verbal and theatrical poetry. N. Richard Nash’s script is more prosaic, dependent on the charisma of the title character and the awakening of the play’s lone woman for its impact. It also displays some nice humour in the exchanges among its men, but overall The Rainmaker is as corny as Kansas in August and definitely shows its age. The fine performances in this production save it.
Written in 1954 and set on a drought-stricken midwestern ranch during the 1930s or maybe earlier, The Rainmaker introduces us to the Curry family: H.C. (Andrew Wheeler, solid as always, sporting a patriarchal beard) and his adult kids. Grumpy oldest son Noah (Kenton Klassen) manages the ranch and tries to manage his siblings, too: happy-go-lucky Jimmy (a delightful Ryan Scramstad) and Lizzie (Pippa Johnstone), whom everyone calls “plain.”
The family’s objective, besides keeping their cattle from dying, is to get Lizzie married. But that’s a tough row to hoe and she doesn’t help her own cause. Lizzie and sheriff’s deputy File (John Voth) seem to have something going, but when neither has the courage or self-confidence to make the necessary move, it looks as though Lizzie might have lost her last chance at avoiding old-maidhood.
Then along comes the mysterious handsome stranger. Smooth-talking Starbuck (Robert Salvador) promises, for $100 in advance, to make it rain. Is he a magic man or just a con man? Noah and Lizzie are skeptical, but H.C. and Jimmy vote to take a chance, a leap of faith—maybe just what Lizzie herself needs to break out of her self-defeating shell. (This is not subtle critical interpretation on my part; the play makes this point repeatedly.) Whether or not Starbuck will make it rain, you can be pretty sure he’s going to take care of Lizzie’s personal drought.
Salvador’s performance is slickly enjoyable. Until almost the end he doesn’t let us know whether this guy is for real or not. Johnstone does a very nice job with Lizzie, too, showing her vulnerability and insecurity as well as her strength.
But there’s no getting around the datedness of this piece. Its central argument is that a single woman of a certain age must get married, and must want to get married, and that a man has to be the catalyst to make her a real woman. For faith-based Pacific Theatre, the play’s theme of faith also looms large. Miracles may happen, but there’s still a lot here that’s hard to swallow (including two intermissions and ten or twelve scene changes). I was grateful to watch some very fine actors at work.