It's also the '30s at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, where drought, both physical and emotional, threatens a ranch family in N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker. The Curry family -- easygoing patriarch H.C. and his children Noah, Jim, and Lizzie -- is struggling to survive as its herds die off. It's a situation exacerbated by Lizzie's failure to marry and youngest son Jim's growing individuation, which he celebrates by running around with a flirty girl in a little red hat. Into this barren household comes a stranger with a promise of rain, and more than that, of impossible dreams fulfilled. Director Michael Ray Wisely writes that this play is about faith; I would say that it is also about obligation, and where the two intersect.
As the play opens, Noah is cursing the drought, while Lizzie has returned from an unsuccessful trip to find a husband. While she's a great cook and fine housekeeper, Lizzie's also probably too smart for the men she's meeting, or at least too unwilling to play the coquette. When her father suggests that she might try to act a little girlier, Lizzie cries, "I want to stand up straight to a man without pretending." Secretly she longs for a man who doesn't seem to know she exists, the sullen sheriff's deputy, File. So Lizzie's loving but clumsy menfolk try to arrange a meeting, but all it comes to is embarrassment.
Enter Bill Starbuck, a charismatic if questionable fellow who promises that, given 24 hours and a hundred dollars, he can bring any sort of rain the family desires. Starbuck quickly worms his way into the pained heart of the family, spreading dissension and fantasies. Starbuck seems to delight in making the family do cockamamie things -- for example, sending Jim out to beat randomly on a drum, sending the rest of the family and the town into fits. Only Lizzie resists, but Starbuck rises to the challenge, trying to convince her that she's beautiful and desirable, against Noah's cruel assessment of her potential.
Noah has taken over running the family in the wake of what he sees as his father's abdication, and he does so forcefully and with little thought to the feelings of others. "You're so full of what's right you can't see what's good," someone tells him, and it's true. Although Robert Harding was grimly perfect as no-nonsense, hardheaded Noah, it was hard to believe he was H.C.'s son and not his brother -- the men's age difference didn't seem great enough. There was also a mysterious disappearing leg injury; near the end of the show, I could hear audience members wondering aloud why Noah wasn't limping when he should have been.
The father stands up for Lizzie's right not to marry, promising that she'll inherit the house. Yet Lizzie, inconsolable, is quick to condemn herself. Modern women and men will recognize her anguish at the prospect of growing old alone. Claire Nail is raw and gangly as Lizzie, radiating vulnerability.
James Inman's set design is lovely. Inside the Curry home, period furniture and decorations seem to float in front of the suggested walls, beautifully bathed by Jennifer Furnari in blue and purple light. Later, the night sky shines through. The suggestion is of endless, sweltering night, ripe with both sadness and possibility. It's a fitting setting for a story that plumbs the endless night of a family's soul, while promising that something good -- rain, perhaps, or love -- may yet come.
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