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THEATER REVIEW 'THE RAINMAKER' : Dry but Fertile Ground : A fast-talking stranger jump-starts repressed lives in Richard Nash's 1954 farm drama, at the Ojai Art Center Theater.

May 09, 1991|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Somewhere in the Midwest, a bunch of simple folk are living quiet, repressed lives when the status quo is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a sharp-talking stranger, who kicks that repression right out the door.

Yes, that's the story of "When You Coming Back, Red Ryder," now playing at the Plaza Players theater in Ventura. But it's also the plot of a quite different play in production at the Ojai Art Center Theater. If you enjoy seeing people booted out of dreary existences but have a low tolerance for harrowing mental games, Ojai is the place to go and "The Rainmaker" is the show to see.

Though the original edition of Richard Nash's 1954 play lasted only a few months on Broadway, "The Rainmaker" became a durable property, filmed in 1956 and launched as a Broadway musical--"110 in the Shade"--in 1963. Twelve years after that, Tanya Tucker's record "Lizzie and the Rainman," based on the same story, was a country radio hit.

Out on a farm somewhere, possibly Oklahoma, the Curry family is the repressed bunch in question. Father O. C. and sons Noah and Jimmy are all interested in marrying off daughter Lizzie, perhaps to File, a local deputy sheriff. File, with repressions of his own, isn't interested. Meanwhile, Jimmy's being eyed by the local "fast" girl, and elder brother Noah--the practical one in the Curry family--doesn't want him hogtied so early in life. Who knows, the woman might want to marry Jimmy!

Furthermore, it's hot and dry.

File turns down a supper invitation by the Currys; he has to stay at his post, watching for a con man said to be headed his way. Just about that time, a fellow who calls himself "Starbuck" falls by the Curry farm, promising to bring rain for $100.

The symbolism here is fairly florid; this is one of those occasions when a cigar is not just a cigar. And those possessing a more highly evolved consciousness may raise their eyebrows over some of the attitudes portrayed. At one point in last Friday's performance, when one character threatened Lizzy with the probability of becoming an old maid, there were several audible hisses.

In the current production, directed by Dori Pelto, the strongest casting and acting is devoted to the Curry family. Matt Pelto plays the mature H. C., who isn't above a dream or two; Mark Ditchfield is the forceful older brother, Noah; and Jeff Hohimer is young Jimmy--who seems to have most of the active hormones in the family.

(Trivialists note that Elvis Presley was offered the role in the film, but his manager turned it down. Earl Holliman wound up playing Jimmy, and "Love Me Tender" became Presley's movie debut).

As the purportedly central character, Lizzy, Rose Blackburn is a bit too quiet at first (she's never less than spunky, after all), but gradually warms to the character and shows real fire by the second act.

Nelson Fox seems to conceive of Deputy File as a near-relative of Mayberry gas station attendant and U.S. Marine Gomer Pyle; why would Lizzie even consider hitching up with someone so naive, unless she's confusing his thickness for those "deep thoughts" she mentions at one point?

Hank Reisner appears, effectively enough, in the relatively minor role of File's boss, Sheriff Thomas.

Buzz Cuccia is an interesting choice as Starbuck. Maybe not as physically imposing as Darrin McGavin, who created the part on Broadway, Burt Lancaster, who played it in the film, or Robert Horton, who sang the role in "110 in the Shade," Cuccia virtually throws himself into the part, investing so much energy that he almost dances through it.

Why, this Starbuck might be headed next to River City, to equip that town with a boys' band. And what a great musical that story would make.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"The Rainmaker" continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through May 18, with one matinee only, this Saturday at 2 p.m. Tickets for all performances are $8; for seniors and Art Center members, $7. The Art Center Theater is at 113 S. Montgomery St. in Ojai. For reservations call (805) 646-0117.

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