The crickets chirping can be distractingly loud when the wincingly dated and oft-revived 1954 bucolic warhorse The Rainmaker is resuscitated, but the Knightsbridge Theatre, director Chuck McCollum and his arresting ensemble have defied the odds, breathing significant new life into a rusty old classic.
N. Richard Nash’s characters still seem right out of Tennessee Williams, but more than ever in today’s media-hyped world, it’s crystal clear that his dialogue has none of the poetry energizing Williams’ work; his writing remains as dry as the land destroyed by drought on the Curry family’s farm in the Depression-era west, the future for his cliché-spouting characters as metaphorically bleak as Lizzie Curry’s need to “find her a man” before her biological clock bursts into flames from the debilitating heat.
The wonder is that McCollum and company have made Lizzie (Larissa Wise) and her all-male testosterone-hampered family immediately endearing despite the hokey lines and improbable situations. This is thanks in no small part to the remarkably Zen-simple performance of Paul Collins as the clan’s salt-of-the-earth father H.C., establishing a very real and sturdy familial bond the actors cast as his dysfunctional offspring easily embrace.
Zach Lewis is a refreshing find as H.C.’s hormonal younger lummox of a son, managing to take on his inner Gomer Pyle while creating Jimmy as genuinely lovable, never for a moment resorting to the usual caricature of an IQ-challenged farmboy. There’s an engaging defenselessness in Lewis’ delivery and a deep-seated isolation inherent in his character’s dumb goofiness, leaving the impression that any of us would give up our little red hat for this sweet country kid.
John Sperry Sisk is an imposing presence as Starbuck, Lizzie’s sudden salvation from her drab existence, contributing an almost Shakespearean turn to the braying con man role that somehow works where so many actors before him have failed. I’d love to see Sisk some day check out his shadow in Laura’s candlelight as the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie, a play featuring dialogue worthy of his talent. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind seeing Wise play opposite him again in Menagerie either, as long as I’m busy casting here.
Derek C. Burke and Floyd VanBuskirk bring a lot to the proceedings in the ungrateful roles of Lizzie’s laconic pseudo-beau File and his gee-willikers boss Sheriff Thomas, glaringly evident in the silly scene in the sheriff’s office when VanBuskirk blurts out more exposition than a documentary on the lonely lives of countryfolk—right before the Curry men come ‘round to help snare File for Lizzie in the most obvious way since a caveman first bludgeoned his intended over the head with a club.
Wise is a perfectly cast Lizzie, as is Geoffrey Hillback as her no-nonsense brother Noah, who’s “so full’a what’s right he can’t see what’s good,” but these roles contain the most convoluted traps for actors to sidestep, including Lizzie’s tendency to become the whiney, wallowing Willie Loman of the 50s and Noah her one-note moustache-twirling nemesis. Wise and Hillback have all the right tools and intellectual understanding, but both should be forewarned to not get overconfident and find themselves caught in Nash’s melodramatic snare as their run settles in.
Considering McCollum’s inventive staging on the wide Knightsbridge stage and his designers’ impressive contribution to the production (particularly his own stunning set, designed in collaboration with Joseph Stachura), if Wise could stumble upon some of Hillback’s strength and stoicism as Noah to add to her Lizzie, and if Hillback could in turn adopt some of the vulnerability Wise brings to the role of his sister, this mounting of The Rainmaker would be just about flawless.
The Rainmaker plays through July 8 at the Knightsbridge Theatre, 1944 Riverside Dr., Los Angeles CA 90039; for tickets, call 323.667.0955.