The 1950s needed plays like The Rainmaker to loosen up that Cold War sobriety. Magical beings drifting through the everyday hardscrabble could scatter a bit of fairy dust that might make everybody’s life slightly better. Why not? Things were grim, what with that Bomb just waiting to drop.
That traditionally is the task of art and artists. But perhaps, went a popular variation of the period, the goods might also be delivered by conjurers or even charlatans. After all, Professor Harold Hill of The Music Man did in fact excite the imaginations of the kids who got the expensive uniforms and instruments and were then instructed to “think” the Minuet in G while the professor skipped town. Who is to say his gains were ill-got, went the jaunty, whimsical message of these pieces.
The magic man of N. Richard Nash’s Rainmaker, now on the main stage of the Old Globe Theatre, is a fast-talking hustler who sells the promise of rain to desperate, drought-stricken ranchers. His target is a motherless family of nice guys and one blunt, smart, restless daughter called Lizzie, firmly on the road to spinsterhood.
The con-man, self-named “Starbuck” long before coffee entered the picture, works the family with practiced ease, using the dreamy patriarch and the itchy kid brother as levers to move, first, the hard-headed older brother and, finally, Lizzie herself.
When he leaves, a step ahead of the sheriff, Starbuck has made a man of the boy, inspired a kinder gentler big brother, answered an old man’s dreams and turned Lizzie into a beautiful woman, ready for marriage to an appropriate local bachelor.
And does he make it rain? It’s a fantasy romance. What do you think?
Starbuck is meant to dominate the play but actually, the regular folks are far more interesting. For me, “Never judge a heifer by the flick of her tail,” as one of the guys says, is more of a delight that several pounds of Starbuck’s musty web-weaving. He’s a stock catalytic character plopped into a nicely constructed family drama, like L. Frank Baum lobbing something from Oz into the middle of an O’Neill epic.
The Globe’s casting and the careful detailing of director Maria Mileaf’s gleaming production reinforce this, too. Never for a moment is Gbenga Akinnagbe’s Starbuck convincing. His strut and bombast is robust, mind you, but there’s a distinct sag when he must carry a scene.
That leaves Danielle Skraastad somewhat stuck in her biggest moment. But the rest of the way, she cavorts like a colt and changes mood on a dime.
The rest of the cast is just dandy. John Judd as the old dad and Kyle Harris as the knuckle-headed kid offer softer comedy while Peter Douglas, a Western icon of responsibility, and Tug Coker, playing a stubbornly independent lawman, humanize stereotypes. And Herbert Siguenza, an old fox familiar from decades of Culture Clash, stops just short of scene-stealing as the comfortable sheriff.
It’s a handsome-looking show, too, although I have to wonder at all the layers in Katherine Roth’s detailed costumes in all this 100-degree-plus weather about which we’re always hearing.
Neil Patel’s sets have the cool minimalism of an Ikea store and they shift beautifully. Lighting designer Japhy Weideman takes every advantage of prairie sunsets offered and Bart Fasbender has found some appropriate and consistent background music.
This is a solid old play covering material now nearly used up but, as Globe audiences expect, it’s done properly.
Continues at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 11, 2013