By Carolyn Hayes Harmer
James R. Kuhl & Dani Cochrane in “The Rainmaker.” Photo: N. Richard Nash
Once upon a time, on an arid stretch of the American West, there was a girl who wasn’t married.
It’s not that she refused to be married – it wasn’t that kind of tragedy. This was the kind of girl who would dreamily waltz alone with an imaginary partner, so you knew her romantic priorities were in the right place. No, this plain Jane simply couldn’t mold herself into the kind of dependent coquette that a man wants to wed. And yet she wouldn’t jump at the chance to marry just anyone (as if someone in her pathetic position could afford to be choosy).
Playwright N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker” is over a half-century old. In the aggregate, it’s about a woman who is intelligent, headstrong and tough in a time when those qualities weren’t valued, which is great; it’s also about finding the right man to fix her, which is less great.
In the production currently at Tipping Point Theatre, director Annette Madias is clearly cognizant of the troublesome patriarchal attitudes that trap her protagonist in a web of false hopes and battered self-esteem. But this acknowledgment proves a double-edged sword, methodically unpacking themes of gender and empowerment while venturing far too infrequently into the more fertile romantic and emotional ground at the heart of the story.
Poor, poor Lizzie Curry (Dani Cochrane). Her male relations have so thoroughly given up on her snagging a husband of her own, they’ve started farming her out to distant relatives in the vain hope of foisting her on anyone with a belt buckle and a pulse. What’s more, Lizzie’s father, H.C. (Jim Porterfield), and brothers Noah (Andrew Papa) and Jim (Nick Yocum) have other troubles as well. The area is in the midst of a legendary drought (think the Depression-era dust bowl), which is decimating the family ranch and cattle population.
The design concepts hint at this parched barrenness, with scenic design (by Bartley H. Bauer) that consists of dusty wood slats and geometric building blocks, and massive back-wall projections (by lighting designer Jeromy Hopgood) that highlight the massive scope of a cloudless horizon. Hardship, too, is alluded to in the script and borne out in simple, sparse properties (by Amanda Grace Ewing). Geographic and era-appropriate remoteness are served up in Julia Garlotte’s radio-transmission-inspired sound design, predominated by locally sourced folk/roots music with an “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” feel. But at the same time, Amber Marisa Cook’s costume pieces – lacking any sign of wear or wilt – make it conveniently easy to forget the supposed oppressive heat and dire want and focus back on the miserable lot of the unwanted old maid.
The Curry men, standards lowered to any-port-in-a-storm levels, next set their sights on lawman File (Joshua Brown), who’s already being needled to seek companionship by his tenderly meddlesome sheriff (Dave Davies). But this is all preamble to the sea change that takes place when a stranger darkens Lizzie’s door. By all accounts a smooth-talking charlatan, the mysterious Starbuck (James R. Kuhl) invites himself into the household and offers to conjure rain for the ranch within 24 hours, at a steep price.
Kuhl’s too-good-to-be-true confidence game is a layered mix of artifice and spark, which effectively shakes up an entrenched family dynamic. In one corner, Papa imbues his every decision with the weight of familial responsibility, dispensing vicious, bitter pills of truth like the medicine he believes them to be. In another, the effusive Yocum readies his adorably denigrated little-brother character to grow a spine without losing his charming naivete. Doubtful Cochrane lets her guard down and starts opening up about her dreams and wounds alike, while Porterfield puts emotional heft into his already considerable wisdom and embraces risk taking and all its consequences. In combination, these seismic shifts have groundbreaking repercussions.
It’s precisely at these charged moments, when thinking is set aside in favor of feeling, that this production hits its highest points. While Cochrane does fine work showing Lizzie’s tortured thought process, her emotions are resonant enough to carry the whole audience away with them, and leave the viewer wondering where that rush came from (and, certainly, why the wait was so long).
When this “Rainmaker” is merely the story of a girl, viewed through a long lens of hindsight as a product of its time, the show contends gamely with its oppressive themes, tracking the logical contradictions that taught women to choose between “subordinate and grateful” and “alone and pitied.” But when the mental machinery falls away and the players act on their feelings, the story becomes uniquely Lizzie’s, tapping an emotional core that quenches the viewer’s timeless thirst for connection and affection.
Tipping Point Theatre
361 E. Cady St., Northville
3 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3
8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20, Dec. 4, 11
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21, 28, Dec. 5, 12
3 & 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22, 29, Dec. 6, 13
2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, 30, Dec. 7, 14
2 hours, 10 minutes