The Rainmaker, N. Richard Nash’s only certifiable hit, “is now regarded as a classic,” says the program. But regard is a two-way mirror, and the play regards its audiences as pushovers. Certainly the problems of the Curry farm family, with endless drought threatening their cattle, and with plain and outspoken Lizzie facing spinsterhood, are written to massage hearts on the sleeve and throats full of loose yuks. Especially when virile Starbuck shows up, undertaking to coax rain from the skies for a hundred bucks and deflowering Lizzie into womanly self-confidence for no added charge.
The show did poorly on Broadway in 1954 (124 performances), and not that much better as a 1956 movie with Lancaster and Hepburn. It came into its own as the 1963 musical 110 in the Shade by Nash, Schmidt, and Jones, and is best revived in that form. Still, the matinee audience I just saw the play with was whooping it up; perhaps, in 45 years, we have grown more concerned for parched livestock and sex-starved virgins wilting on the vine, and are willing to forgive director Scott Ellis for overdoing things.
He turns Woody Harrelson, as Starbuck, into a slouching, squeaky-voiced, redneck-accented, white-linen-suited scalawag, not tall, dashing, or seductive. His manner radiates con man a country mile off, and when it comes to tenderly and sexily awakening the dormant Lizzie, director and star fail abjectly. Jayne Atkinson acts Lizzie well, and looks suitably plain, but seems a bit overage for the part. The supporting roles are sturdily taken, but Ellis overdirects the talented David Aaron Baker, as the younger brother, into an even bigger dunderhead than the author conceived.
Matters are not helped by James Noone’s cutesy set with toy houses in the background. And Ellis’s cute way of having the scenery changed by cowboyishly dressed extras would go over better in a musical, which is Ellis’s specialty anyhow.