Every now and then I find myself flipping through network TV channels on a Sunday morning searching in vain for cartoons and I come across one of those mega-church evangelists spilling their hearts out to a stadium sized congregation. Despite not being religious in the slightest, in a matter of moments, I find myself listening to their passionate articulation and, miraculously, instead of forming any opinion on the topic, I just sit back and admire the storytelling for a few moments. By removing personal reaction to content I’m able to just appreciate the charisma required to perform for all those people? This is sort of what it’s like for me to watch The Rainmaker, not only because one the characters has an evangelical quality about him, but because the play is steeped in some uncomfortably sexist points of view that you can’t just get caught up in if you are to enjoy the show at all. San Jose Stage does a commendable job of telling the story and keeping the outdated material as pertinent to the story of that era as you possibly could.
A committed cast leads the challenge of a play intended to be romantic and empowering, but more than occasionally inevitably seeming less than. The standouts for me had to be Jimmy and File. Jimmy’s zealous enthusiasm and simple mindedness were easy to accept as genuine and helped to coax me into a proper accepting mindset. In beautiful opposition to Jimmy’s vibrant emotionality, File was played nuanced, pensive, sharp and with a genuine physical reserve and masculine vulnerability. While I would have enjoyed a bit more chemistry between Lizzie and Starbuck, I enjoyed their performances which felt appropriately layered without straying too much from believability and expectation. Lizzie is played more than a spinster, but no great feminist and Starbuck is played deeper than a con-man, but no great saint. There is plenty of charm and humor throughout to temper the moments of expired logic and the entire cast gives us good performances of good characters. With one possible exception, all the characters in the play are quite likeable and that’s one thing this show really has going for it. With the presence of consistently very pretty visual tableau that speak to the nostalgia of the piece we are reminded it’s okay to give into the romance and to root for the underdog even though our leading lady is essentially seeking a man to validate her worth and future sanity on some not too buried level. While not terribly thought-provoking or challenging with regard to plot, yes, we like this family and we root for the “happy” ending, even if we find that end to be a bit limiting to our modern brains.
Intense heat and drought play central characters themselves in the show and while the set was rustic and the costuming apropos, I felt there lacked some dust, sweat and warmer tones to help communicate that intensity and physically supplement the metaphoric desperation. Warmer lighting could have helped to seal that gap a bit more, a more nuanced sound design could have immersed us more as well, and slightly slower pacing in places might have aided to that dry, hot atmosphere. On the plus side, there were theatrical devices that risked “stereotyping” heat rather than reading it as genuine that were avoided. Still, some questionable choices were made that sincerely tried my drought-aware sensibilities. Choices as simple as a pitcher of water for flowers and a water basin for cooling off proved a distraction for me as I watched a family, supposedly losing cattle from the drought.
Rainmaker is not overly complex by any means and maybe its past its prime with regard to substantial relevancy, but it’s still a nice pause in time and this production is certainly a good one. 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a sentimental, nostalgic, charming story that is oddly romantic and respectfully told. The Rainmaker plays through October 26th at the Stage in Downtown San Jose.