“The Rainmaker” ends with the timely arrival of a much-desired downpour, a watery deluge that should be accompanied by an equal rush of feeling on the part of the audience. Alas, in the new Broadway revival of N. Richard Nash’s play, only the water arrives on cue — the heart stands still. With disappointingly pallid performances from film and TV star Woody Harrelson and Jayne Atkinson in the principal roles, director Scott Ellis’ parched and poky staging treats the play with a tasteful reserve that is presumably aiming at a soft naturalism but succeeds only in draining the play of much of its satisfying sentimental charge.
Set in the rural Midwest in 1936, Nash’s play is a sturdy variation on the old fairy tales about ugly ducklings and underappreciated stepsisters. Lizzie Curry (Atkinson) is a sweet, spunky and socially awkward woman whose lack of matrimonial prospects is a continual worry to her widowed father H.C. (Jerry Hardin) and her two brothers, the straight-talking, cynical Noah (John Bedford Lloyd) and the hopped-up, naive Jim (David Aaron Baker).
Lizzie’s chances seem to be fading by the minute in the play’s comic opening scenes. A visit to a passel of eligible male relatives has flopped, and dad and the boys haven’t had any more luck wooing the local deputy, the laconic File (Randle Mell), to the house for a taste of Lizzie’s home cooking.
With its emphasis on Lizzie’s “plainness” and her pathetic inability to get a man “the way a man gets got,” “The Rainmaker’s” plot may strike contemporary audiences as hopelessly dated or even quaintly offensive — marriage is far from the holy grail of womanhood it was once assumed to be. But the story of Lizzie’s loveless life still works on an elemental emotional level: It’s not so much Lizzie’s social worth and welfare but her personal happiness that is at stake, and surely we can all still agree that a healthy romance is conducive to contentment.
The drying up of Lizzie’s prospects is symbolized by the drought that is plaguing the region, and hope for both appears on the horizon with the arrival of a slick character calling himself Bill Starbuck (Harrelson), a tall drink of moonshine who claims he can make the rain fall for the bargain price of a hundred bucks. Led by the gullible Jimmy, followed enthusiastically by H.C. — who knows he’s being taken for a ride but also knows he hasn’t got much to lose — the family gradually falls under the spell of this sweet-talking charlatan, with Lizzie, of course, falling hardest of all.
Despite its sometimes antiquated surfaces and sounds, the subtext of the play is solidly rooted in home truths: Love is never easy to find or keep, it is as hard to live with dreams as it is to live without them, and the power to heal wounds the world inflicts mostly resides in our own hearts and minds. There’s a heap of poetry in this plain-spoken tale of a woman whose beauty only receives its tribute when she believes in it herself.
Unfortunately, this production taps into very little of it. The most dispiriting surprise is the subdued, almost remote performance of Atkinson as Lizzie. In her last Broadway outing, as the doomed wife in Lincoln Center Theater’s “Ivanov,” Atkinson was quietly heartrending — her performance was the finest element in an uneven production.
Atkinson is clearly an intelligent, thoughtful actress — there’s meticulous care in her studiously tamped-down performance here. But she may be too intelligent and thoughtful to be at home in the simple, sentimental dynamics of Nash’s play. Perhaps Atkinson is trying to avoid the tremulous, transparent feeling of Katharine Hepburn’s memorable performance in the film version, or maybe she sought to bring a dignified reserve to a character who spends much of the play being humiliated or pitied. Whatever the cause, she underplays the role from start to finish, failing to make palpably touching Lizzie’s loneliness and the dizzying release she feels when Starbuck finally lays bare her heart with his healing words.
Harrelson certainly works hard, but his smooth-talking Starbuck could use a little more, er, caffeine. This snake-oil salesman doesn’t really have the evangelical charm and lyrical prowess he should — only when Harrelson brings a frolicsome physicality to Starbuck’s fanciful telling of a fractured fairy tale do we get a glimpse of the character’s magnetic appeal. Nor does Harrelson powerfully convey Starbuck’s tender underbelly — he is as haunted by failure as Lizzie is, and it’s this that gives him both the power to read her heart and the desire to heal it.
Nash’s play has charm but little subtlety, and it needs to be played in emotional Technicolor so the occasional dip into hokum and homily can be obscured. Ellis’ tepid treatment, featuring mournful guitar music by Louis Rosen between scene changes, only emphasizes its longueurs as it stumbles through or ambles past the play’s emotional turning points with little dramatic punctuation. For an accomplished director of musicals, Ellis proves surprisingly deaf to the play’s lyrical contours of feeling — there’s usually far more color seeping up and down James Noone’s cyclorama backdrop than there is onstage.
The exception is the performance of Baker as the juvenile young buck Jimmy. Although he sometimes pushes exuberance to the point of obnoxiousness, Baker at least seems to be fully engaged with both his character and the play’s big-hearted spirit. Hardin, too, gives a strong performance in a softer key as the gruff but deeply loving H.C.
“The Rainmaker” began life as an NBC television production before becoming a Broadway play starring Geraldine Page, but it’s best remembered for the 1956 film starring Hepburn and Burt Lancaster. This Roundabout Theater Co. revival — Broadway’s first — is not likely to change that.