Between pessimism and delusion in the Great American heartland

‘The Rainmaker’ at People’s Light

2 minute read
Pryor (left), McNulty: Must a plain girl settle?
Pryor (left), McNulty: Must a plain girl settle?
Depictions of the lives of farmers and ranchers in American plays and novels have run the gamut from Steinbeck’s grim realism to the sunny romanticism of Oklahoma! to the exquisitely detailed naturalism of Willa Cather’s prairie novels.

N. Richard Nash’s 1954 play, The Rainmaker, draws on the latter two traditions. It’s at once a romance and a compelling character study. The Rainmaker lacks the psychological depth of Cather’s work, but it’s undeniably charming.

We find ourselves in western Iowa during the Depression. An extended drought threatens the livestock on the Curry family ranch, where patriarch H.C. lives with his two sons and his unmarried daughter, Lizzie. She’s experiencing a romantic drought of her own: Though her father presses her to find a husband, she’s shy and painfully insecure about her looks.

Plain Jane’s quandary

Suddenly, a flamboyant character who calls himself Bill Starbuck appears at their door. For $100, he claims, he can make it rain and save their livestock. Though Lizzie and her practical brother Noah are skeptical, H.C. is intrigued and willing to give the scheme a try. To bring rain, Starbuck has the family pounding on drums and painting the ground with whitewash.

Noah becomes increasingly perturbed, ultimately venting his frustration at Lizzie. He insists that she must accept the fact that she is plain and settle for whatever husband she can get. Lizzie runs to Starbuck, who tries to persuade her to see herself— and the world in general— from a dreamer’s perspective. As the play progresses, Lizzie must devise a happy medium between Noah’s perspective and Starbuck’s.

Booby-trapped role

Under Abigail Adams’s fluid direction, the People’s Light ensemble meets its customary high standard. Nancy McNulty as Lizzie solidly anchors the production. This role is booby-trapped in way: An actress could easily overdo the pathos. But McNulty brings some much-needed humor to the character.

Michael Sharon makes an appropriately dashing and stylized Starbuck.

The production also benefits from good work by Pete Pryor as a lonely deputy, whom H.C. has eyed as a possible match for Lizzie; Graham Smith as the sensitive patriarch; Kevin Berger as the harsh realist, Noah; John Jarboe as the somewhat goofy younger brother; and Mark Lazar as the sympathetic sheriff.

Applause is also due for Wilson Chin’s set design, which suggests the layout of the Curry ranch house, backed by a giant orb that serves at turns as a parching sun and a romantic moon.

What, When, Where

The Rainmaker. By N. Richard Nash; Abigail Adams directed. Through October 13, 2013 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, Pa. (610) 644-3500 or

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