By Michael Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 19, 2005
Prince William Little Theatre is closing out its season with N. Richard Nash's 1954 romantic fable, "The Rainmaker," displaying the troupe's promise as well as its shortcomings. The seven-member cast fleshes out Nash's tale about faith fashioning dreams from harsh reality, but the design and technical crews fail to contribute to the storytelling.
The title character is Starbuck (Bob Cohen), a flamboyant con man who precipitates more than he expects on the Currys, a struggling, Depression-era ranch family in Kansas. Drought is strangling the land, as "plain" daughter Lizzie (Jessica Billones) finds her own prospects for a fulfilling life drying up. Starbuck bursts onto this hot, dry landscape, promising rain and salvation for the dying cattle, for $100. Patriarch H.C. (Joe Bersack) whimsically agrees, over the objections of his provincial, humorless older son, Noah (Mike King). Jimmy (Bryant Sullivan), the eccentric younger son, is thrilled to have something new to consider, but Lizzie, reluctantly sensing electricity in the air between herself and the glib stranger, sees storm clouds ahead. Meanwhile, the law, in the form of deputy File (A. J. Cook) is closing in on Starbuck.
It's a rather conventional, almost turgid drama. Just as the landscape is desiccated and dusty, the emotional lives of most of the characters are withered and barren. Nash has sprinkled in just enough gentle humor to keep the story from stagnating in melodrama, and there is enough material for an ambitious director and a dedicated cast to create scenes that jump off the stage. Indeed, Billones, Cook, and Sullivan turn in performances rich in texture, pumping life into the scenes they anchor with fully dimensional characterizations.
Billones's Lizzie has an unexpected edge to her, as the young woman struggles to contain her mounting sense of desperation. Nash's play reflects the values of his era, and he wrote Lizzie as a woman seemingly headed for spinsterhood and primarily defined by her relationships with men. But Billones balances innate pride with acquired pain, giving her scenes emotional heft. Cook also explores facets in his deputy; this File is more than the usual hapless hayseed, as Cook ratchets up the man's tensions and allows the inner turmoil to wash over his face and rigid body. Sullivan goes for laughs; his good-natured, loose-limbed Jimmy has an open face that registers every thought and emotion that flits across his brain.
Other cast members concentrate more on reciting dialogue than developing character, resulting in plenty of missed opportunities. This could have been deadly if the theater company had not chosen what seems to be an abridged version of the play. It's usually a full evening's epic, languidly stretching out over three acts, but this is a streamlined, economical two acts. Director Lisa Nanni-Messegee keeps things moving briskly, the actors rarely lingering over a moment. That may keep the audience from squirming in their hard folding chairs, but it also severely dilutes one of the play's most important elements, the dissolute atmosphere of oppression created by constant heat combined with disappointment.
Also diminishing the ambience is a production team that doesn't even seem to be trying here. Poorly recorded sound effects seriously undermine realism, emanating in a disorienting fashion from behind the audience, as if the crew couldn't be bothered to run a wire to an onstage speaker. It was apparently too much trouble to hang overhead lights onstage, so actors are flatly illuminated like escaping convicts in a prison yard from lights mounted on poles behind the audience, creating a pageant of shadows. Seating is on a flat gym floor, which is fine as long as actors remain onstage. But when scenes take place on that same floor, and the actors sit down, audience members a few rows back have to stand to see the action. You can be certain they're not standing for any ovations.
"The Rainmaker" concludes this weekend, performed by Prince William Little Theatre at R. C. Haydon Elementary School, 9075 Park Ave., Manassas. Performances on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. For tickets or information, call 703- 330-7796 or visithttp://www.PWLT.org.