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Theater Review

The Silver Lining Holds Up in 'The Rainmaker' Revival

October 17, 2000|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The notion of dreams coming true might seem a preposterous conceit in a morecynical era, yet "The Rainmaker," N. Richard Nash's unabashedly optimistic 1953 teleplay-turned-Broadway-hit, still has the power to keep disbelief at bay in Jenny Sullivan's affectingly staged revival for Ventura's Rubicon Theatre.

Preceding "The Music Man" by three years, Nash's fable, about a traveling con man (Carlos Sanz) who lives only in his dreams and a lonely spinster (Stephanie Zimbalist) who lives entirely outside hers, shares some of the same fairy-tale appeal, sans trombones. In this case, trouble's capital T rhymes with D, which stands for "drought"--both meteorological and spiritual--as a family of Old West-style ranchers grapples with encroaching urbanization in the 1920s.

Director Sullivan and her first-rate cast add heightened gravitas with a tough-minded approach to the upheaval wrought by changing social values. In this regard, Zimbalist's bravura performance as Lizzie anchors the production with a letter-perfect portrait of a smart, independent-minded woman who can't live up to her community's traditional expectations. Angry at being shopped around like a farm animal to potential husbands by her father and brothers, Lizzie's self-destructive resistance is comic and poignant at the same time.

Lizzie's complexity deepens with the appearance of Sanz's Starbuck, the drifter who offers to bring rain--for a fee, of course. Relying less on charisma and more on brooding mystery, Sanz delves beneath the charlatan to reveal the wounded dreamer who is as out of place in the world as Lizzie herself.

*

Their beautifully played connection aches with a partiality that brings the fairy tale gracefully back to earth.

The supporting cast does a superb job in both defining its characters' strengths and limitations, and showing the healing wrought by Starbuck's influence. James O'Neil's Noah is the pragmatic elder brother enslaved to rationality, who finally realizes that in trying to keep his family from breaking its heart on what he considers foolishness, he has been demeaning and belittling them. Joseph Fuqua engenders cheers as his slow-speaking brother Jim, who sees more clearly with his heart than Noah sees with his head, but lacks the self-confidence to trust his own feelings.

Jeff Kober convincingly depicts the show's biggest stretch--the loner deputy who overcomes his own massive prejudices to buck the system and even his grizzled sheriff boss (Tony Perry). But the true catalyst for all these changes is not Starbuck, it's John Bennett Perry's sensitive portrayal as the rancher patriarch who seems to have lost his footing in the world with the loss of his wife, yet somehow recognizes that the obvious con man can supply the missing spark that will bring completeness to his struggling family.

Production values are excellent, from Pamela Shaw's sweat-stained costumes to Tom Giamario's elegant set, which squeezes three locales onto an intimate stage. After nearly half a century, "The Rainmaker" still makes a handsomely staged case for miracles.

*

* "The Rainmaker," Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Wednesdays through Saturdays,8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 5. $20-$35. (805) 667-2900. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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