Into each life some rain must fall. Well, maybe not each life, according to playwright N. Richard Nash's 1954 romantic fable, "The Rainmaker."
Nash has created a dry and dusty landscape, physically and psychologically, and just as the earth hardens and cracks without rainfall, the emotional lives of his characters are withered and barren.
That's tough ground to plow onstage and make interesting, especially with a three-act play that is about half an hour too long. So, Rockville Little Theatre's successful production is all the more remarkable.
"The Rainmaker" looks at the effect a flamboyant con man has on the lives of the Currys, a ranching family during the Great Depression. It's hot. It's dry. As the land suffers from drought, plain Lizzie Curry rapidly approaches spinsterhood, with her prospects for a fulfilling life drying up.
Poor Lizzie's dad and brothers can't even get File, the awkward deputy sheriff, out to the ranch for dinner because the man realizes they're trying to fix him up. It's tragic. But wait. Lizzie's crusty father and brothers are all bereft of female companionship and no one notices. Oh, well, it was 1954, and playwrights could get away with defining a woman primarily by her relationships with men.
A fast-talking, swaggering character calling himself Starbuck bursts onto this parched Ponderosa one hot evening, promising to deliver rain and save the dying cattle, all for only $100. H.C., the old man, whimsically goes for it against the wishes of his stiff-necked and humorless older son, Noah. The younger son, the eccentric Jimmy, thinks it's a great idea. But Lizzie takes one look at Starbuck and, perhaps sensing that lightning may soon strike, forms instant antipathy. Meanwhile, the sheriff is hot on Starbuck's trail.
The story sounds turgid, but Nash has leavened it with gentle humor and it becomes a tale about how faith can fashion dreams out of mundane reality. Director Bridget Muehlberger keeps the pace moving and her cast turns in impressive performances.
It's a great show to look at, too, with Bruce Starr's painstakingly detailed and colorful ranch house interior, tack room and sheriff's office sets filling the huge stage of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre. And goofy Jimmy manages to get a girl before it either rains or doesn't. (If you haven't seen the Burt Lancaster/Katharine Hepburn film, we'll keep you in suspense.)
The cavernous theater presents a challenge. This is psychological drama with most of the focus inner-directed. The actors, however, have balanced the need to project their characters and fill the large auditorium with their energy while maintaining the intimate nature of the material. They do it so well, you never see them straining.
Erika Imhoff is electrifying as she makes sharp-tongued Lizzie's desperation palpable, balancing pride with pain, her face a shifting landscape. As Starbuck, Andrew S. Greenleaf is a bit over-caffeinated in his early scenes. He gives a performance too stylized and out of sync with the realistic tone Muehlberger has otherwise created. But he settles down eventually, and the tender scene in which he makes Lizzie believe she is beautiful is quite moving.
Steve LaRocque anchors some early scenes that might otherwise meander aimlessly with his down-to-earth portrayal of H.C., while Guy Palace and Matt Baughman bring dour Noah and good-natured Jimmy to life with nicely nuanced performances. Steven R. Escobar is the hapless File, whom he mischievously plays the way one imagines young James Stewart might have played Barney Fife. Silver-haired John Malloy is all business as the sheriff.
If you like this play, note that "The Rainmaker" was turned into the musical "110 in the Shade," which Arlington's Signature Theatre will open next week, allowing area theatergoers an unusual opportunity to compare the two versions.
"The Rainmaker" will be performed by Rockville Little Theatre through Jan. 25 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre at Rockville Civic Center Park on Baltimore Road and Edmonston Drive. Showtime is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with a matinee at 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call 240-314-8690.