Are we defined by the way we see ourselves or by the way others see us? That's one of the questions inherent in N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker, now onstage at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Defining the personal - and understanding the impact that friends and family have on one another - is as relevant in this 1954 play as in our Facebook age.
Directed here by Karen Paisley, The Rainmaker isn't a broad social statement but a personal story, one that's funny and touching, centered on one small community in drought-ridden, rural western Kansas in 1934 during the Great Depression.
In particular, we come to know one family: H.C. Curry, a dad (Scott Cordes) running a ranch with his two grown sons, Noah (Jason Miller) and Jim (Kyle Dyck), and his grown and unmarried (gasp) daughter, Lizzy (Jessalyn Kincaid). The family's friends include Sheriff Thomas (Bob Paisley) and his deputy, File (Tim Ahlenius).
Into their lives comes the Rainmaker, Starbuck (Forrest Attaway), who pops up out of nowhere and inserts himself in their lives, with immediate effects.
Is he con man or dreamer? Is he a magician? Does he have powers? Attaway's agile portrayal is no River City cartoon but a real man, standing in for all the snake-oil salesmen of the day and giving us a stranger with his own secrets. The story swirls around this person who stirs up this town and especially this family.
Some things don't require much before they seem not just stirred but shaken. The story's obsession with Lizzy's marital status - certainly a dated aspect of Nash's work - leads to thematic revelations that feel more timeless. Kincaid effectively navigates the strictures of others' expectations against her own roller coaster of emotions and continual self-discovery. The character's journey remains at the center of this story, and her pains aren't relegated only to some earlier time.
Noah is the responsible, rule-bound sibling - you can almost feel his muscles tense - in contrast to the younger, more naïve Jim, who still wonders at the world's possibilities. We know these guys. And we know Cordes' H.C., who heads his family with warmth, humor and a light hand, and a wisdom not readily apparent.
Ahlenius and Paisley give strong and sensitive performances as the two cops. Paisley doesn't just do the talk but also takes on the walk of his local sheriff.
MET's sprawling stage spans the width of the large theater space (set by Karen Paisley), and the wood-plank floors, screen door, and sturdy functional furniture give us the feel of a 1930s farmhouse. The back lighting subtly portrays time of day and the expanse of what lies outside the door (lighting by Greg Casparian).
And that awful August heat comes through clearly in the characters' experience of the weather. These men and women pull you into their world and make you part of it. We can see ourselves in all of them, even if their world is far away.