Lizzie Curry is frequently told how plain she is by the males in her family who are keen on marrying her off. As they try to get the local divorced deputy interetsed in Lizzie, outside the Curry Ranch the cattle are dying of drought on a scorching Summer day. Enter Starbuck, a magnetic tale-spinner who promises rain for a mere hundred dollars. Can Starbuck overcome Lizzie’s scepticism and bring rain to the desert of her life? This romantic comedy, an American classic, is a tribute to the power of laying claim – and holding tight to one man’s dream.
The Curry family run a farm in a Midwestern State. There’s H.C., the father (Roy Archer), and two brothers, Noah (Paul Morton) and Jim (Adam Chamberlain) and their sister Lizzie (Emma Bartlett). The Curry family are preoccupied by two droughts: one is meteorological that threatens their livestock and livelihood; the other is matrimonial and relates to Lizzie’s inability to find a husband. Lizzie wants to be married and knows she has to get married.
It doesn’t help when her brother thinks that she is ‘Plain not Beautiful’ and tells her she is’ Going to be an old maid’ (Well, she is twenty seven), however, Lizzie has high standards. She’s bright, knowledgeable (She knows that Madagascar is an Island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique) and is interested in most things than the average Rodeo redneck male couldn’t begin to comprehend. She has seen how other women have entrapped their men through hollow flattery, coquetry and by blatantly lowering their neckline. Lizzie will not ‘stoop to conquer’; she keeps her neckline high and her hair up.
The Curry clan with Lizzie’s knowledge, but without her consent, conspire to invite the local deputy, File (Sean Stokes), a local eligible man to supper. They go to File’s Office and by making a number of transparent excuses try to inveigle File to come to their ranch for the evening. File sees through the ruse and decides to stay at his Office. A dispute breaks out and File ends up hitting Jim.
The Curry’s return without File to a freshly laid table, lot’s of good home cooking (‘Steak and Kidney pie as big as that table’) and a crestfallen Lizzie; even File, doesn’t seem interested in her. Then suddenly from nowhere enter Starbuck (Chris Janes). Why he turns up is not clear but he knows a lot about the Curry’s and their livestock predicament. He claims that rain follows him and using a whole load of jargon ‘Electrify the Cold Front. Neutralise the warm front. Barometrize the tropopause. Magnetize occlusions in the sky’ he promises them that for a hundred dollars he will bring them rain within twenty four hours.
They all seem sceptical particularly Noah, who maintains his scepticism to the end, and Lizzie who sees it as ‘Bunk!’ She thinks that he is no more than a conman. H.C. thinks differently, he believes that if there is a chance of achieving a dream ‘You have to gamble with what you have.’ Against the wishes of Noah, H.C. hands over a hundred dollars.
Starbuck then sets them ridiculous tasks all of which are supposed to the promote the fall of rain: H.C. has to paint a white arrow on the ground to keep the thunder away from the house; Noah is dispatched to tie the legs of a mule together and Jim is given a big bass drum with leave to beat it when he feels the urge.
The influence of Starbuck on the family through his charisma, charm and philosophical insight is catalytic particularly in his effect on Lizzie. Alone together in the tack room a silver-tongued Starbuck works his charm on Lizzie and convinces her that she is not just a ‘Plain Jane’. Lizzie is immediately captivated and momentarily thinks that Starbuck is the man of her dreams.’ You cry for a star that you will never get it. And then one day you look down and there it is shining in your hand’ she says. Lizzie lets down her hair and casts her hairgrips aside.
The effect of Starbuck on the family is also so profound that when File and Sheriff Thomas (Andy Kirtley) turn up to arrest Starbuck on the suspicion that he is Tornado Johnson, a wanted conman and fraudster, the family, even Noah, move to protect him. The Currys plead with File to let Starbuck go on the grounds that the family think that he has brought them nothing but good. File is reluctant because it runs counter to his lawful instincts but he eventually concedes. Starbuck dashes off to liberty only to return moments later to ask Lizzie to go with him in order to be part of his dream. File asks her to stay and suddenly Lizzie is torn – but she decides to stay and be true to herself and her dream. There is a loud clap of thunder and the rain begins to fall.
The Rainmaker is a comforting, warm story about family love and the pursuit of dreams. The characters are well drawn and there are some wonderful moments that are comic and touching, unfortunately a lot of this was not realised in this production. I was pleased to see that the production would be in the traverse. I like to see plays staged differently, however, when the acting area is restricted as it is at the COPS theatre, it seems somewhat bizarre to reduce the available space further with unnecessary clutter; far more can be achieved with less and good use of lighting.
For instance, File’s large desk seemed to dominate one area of the stage. This meant that the Curry’s table was pushed further away from the centre of the acting space. It contrived to constrict the movements around the table and make the action stilted. Also, in the scene when we first see File and the Sheriff, Lizzie was preparing the table in the dark and in the foreground. It took sometime and was very distracting, particularly for those further down the rake, as she whizzed back and forth past File and the sheriff with different items of tableware. Why couldn’t a smaller desk just be brought on and off? Perhaps there were some logistic reasons for this but it may have allowed the space to be opened up and permitted more of the audience to see more of the action such as when Jim ate the raw eggs and H.C. tripped and spilled paint on the floor. There also seemed to be too much furniture in the tack room and the long bench placed down one side of the wall to my right seemed to be there more for the convenience of the production than the audience.
However, what struck me more about the setting was that it did just did not convey the fact we were in the Mid-Western state in the middle of a blistering heat wave (101°F; 38°C). The walls were black; the floor was black. I wanted to feel the heat and the dust. And where were the mesh doors on springs? The swish of a chintz curtain didn’t seem to have the same timbre. The sense of stifling heat is very important to the thrust of the story but the actors just did not convey it. They moved too quickly, they never seemed to be bothered by the heat and obviously were all using an effective deodorant because none of them seemed to sweat or to have sweated. There was also no sense of time. When was the play set? We assume in the thirties because Jim is trying to reach Kansas City on his crystal set.
The actors were all very competent: Roy Archer and Paul Morton were solid as H.C. and Noah. I enjoyed Andy Kirtley’s performance as the sheriff and Adam Chamberlain as Jim. The scene where Jim returns smoking a panatela and wearing the red hat of his now betrothed Snookie Maguire was very well done. Given that this was Sean Stokes’ first sortie onto the stage he acquitted himself well and I thought the scene he had with Lizzie where she reneges on her principles and decides to try and woo File was handled well – there was the just the right amount of embarrassment and hesitancy. Emma Bartlett also acquitted herself well at times but always niggling me in the back of my mind was the fact that she was just too pretty to be a ‘Plain Jane’. I found it hard to believe that she had never, ever been asked for a ride at the Rodeo. Chris Janes had excellent stage presence with a good, consistent accent yet his Starbuck did not have, I feel, the charisma, showmanship, swagger or brashness of a conman; Starbuck was far too sincere and didn’t parade himself sufficiently.
Overall it was clear that production would have been stronger had the director, Betty Janes, coaxed stronger performances from her cast. This weakness was apparent throughout the production where the pace was, for a lot of the time, on one level; it caused the expression to become perfunctory and the passion to dissipate. For instance, the fight between Jim Curry and File in File’s office in act one appeared to come from nowhere.
In spite of my negative comments I did enjoy the evening. I only feel that with such a good pool of acting talent, a splendid script and a marvellous acting space more could have been achieved and expected of this production; it could have been beautiful not plain.