The 1950s gave rise to a bumper crop of treacly melodramas. N. Richard Nash’s 1954 play, “The Rainmaker,” was certainly a product of its time. Set on a Depression-era Midwestern farm during a terrible drought, the play concerns the romantic travails of Lizzie, a plain-shoes good ol’ gal who seems likely to remain a ... gasp ... spinster.
By present-day standards, Lizzie’s tremulous epiphany that she will be an “old maid” seems downright archaic. And Starbuck, the dazzlingly glib con man who sweeps Lizzie up into romantic adventure, is overblown. (Note Burt Lancaster’s 1956 film performance as a case in point.)
The play, later transmuted by Nash himself into a musical, has been persistently revived. But unless you see the current production at the Edgemar Center, you’ve simply never seen this play. In a definitive staging, director Jack Heller smooths over the piece’s limitations and crafts a striking, specific portrait of a bygone time.
As for the performances, each should be distilled, bottled and preserved for posterity. Stephen Howard is a paragon of folksiness as H.C. Curry, Lizzie’s father; David Garver shines as Noah, Lizzie’s prickly older brother; and Benjamin Chamberlain is a flat-out hoot as Jim, Lizzie’s sweetly doltish younger brother. Particularly superb is Scott Roberts as the misanthropic local deputy who has a secret hankering for Lizzie. Ralph Guzzo is excellent as the town sheriff.
Although he occasionally struggles against his overwritten material, Robert Standley brings his Starbuck down from the histrionic heights to human scale. The standout of this terrific cast is Tanna Frederick’s acerbically yearning Lizzie. Plain as mud in the early scenes, Frederick lets down her hair with Starbuck – and, by some magic of theatrical alchemy, becomes a genuine beauty. It’s a transformation not to be missed.
“The Rainmaker,” Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 24. $34.50. (310) 392-7327. www.edgemarcenter.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Extended through May 19, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays..