Although it is probably too retro and slight to warrant a major production, Lanford Wilson's new play is nonetheless a thoughtful and emotionally resonant wartime character study about a collective crisis of conscience among scientists gathered in New Mexico to create the nuclear bomb.

Although it is probably too retro and slight to warrant a major production, Lanford Wilson’s new play is nonetheless a thoughtful and emotionally resonant wartime character study about a collective crisis of conscience among scientists gathered in New Mexico to create the nuclear bomb.

“Rain Dance” is an earnest, tightly crafted four-hander that will certainly be of interest to aficionados of this long-established American scribe. But while the interplay of science, politics and the military at Los Alamos is of natural historical interest, the play needs to reach further into the souls of the men who created a laboratory of death in Hiroshima. There’s a deeper, timeless point floating around this play that might be revealed if Wilson opened up the confined dramatic action and, well, let everything rip regardless of stylistic consequence.

The play’s themes inevitably push the playwright down some well-worn dramatic paths, of course. We are treated to plenty of speeches from the central young scientist about whether he’s doing the right thing or not, followed by the expected rebuffs from older (or more cynical or more pecuniary) hands who tell him not to worry his young head about it. There’s even a sensual, uber-intelligent European woman on hand to offer some comfort of a less intellectual kind to the reluctant bombmaker.

Despite the familiarity of these conflicts, Wilson expresses himself with his typical eloquence, offering the Purple Rose actors some rich characterizations and the audience some interesting digressions. There’s a peculiar, caged intensity to this work that largely overcomes its weaknesses and holds the attention.

Events take place on July 15, 1945, with the Los Alamos project in its final stages and the hills alive with test explosions. In a government cantina (which strangely lacks any employees), Wilson deposits the aforementioned nervous young scientist Hank (Matt Letscher) with Tony, a Native American security man (Billy Merasty).

The whiz kid kvetches, paces and tries to keep his emotions in check. Meanwhile, the cynical and taciturn Tony reveals that he sold his soul doing naked Indian shows in Europe, allowing for some discussion here of environmental and multicultural issues.

The conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Peter, an older scientist (Paul Hopper), and his wife, who is apparently having a sanctioned affair with Tony. Thanks in part to the talents of actress Suzi Regan (who was equally terrific here some two years ago in Wilson’s “Book of Days”), this woman gives the piece both sexual tension and palpable emotional charge.

Guy Sander’s world premiere production has some admirable qualities as well as a few problems. Merasty seemed uncomfortable with the text in the early stages of the play. And although Letscher is an expressive and appealing actor, he struggles to make us care about the moral dilemmas on which the play pivots. The actor clearly needs further help in that regard from the playwright.

Things improve greatly in the later stages, with Merasty finding his groove and Regan coming into focus (the nicely understated Hopper also works very well).

Overall, the play is a bit confounding. Despite Wilson’s artistry, its serious themes and felicity of expression only combine to reach their full potential intermittently.

Rain Dance

Purple Rose Theater, Chelsea, Mich., 168 seats; $32.50 top

Production

A Purple Rose Theater presentation of a play in one act by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Guy Sanville.

Creative

Sets, Vincent Mountain; costumes, Rebecca Ann Valentino; lighting, Dana White; sound, Suzi Regan; stage managers, Anthony Caselli, Julie Dougherty. Executive director, Jeff Daniels. Opened Jan. 19, 2001. Reviewed Jan. 21. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast

Hank - Matt Letscher Tony - Billy Merasty Irene - Suzi Regan Peter - Paul Hopper
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