N. Richard Nash's well-constructed comedy-melodrama revolves around a forthright farm girl, living in Depression-era Kansas, who is snatched from the jaws of spinsterhood in the nick of time. The story is irresistible matinee kitsch, a country-western Glass Menagerie sprayed with laughing gas. An odd balance of The Power of Positive Thinking-style self-help books and wistful fairy tale, it promotes the pre-feminist dream that every woman just needs to take off her metaphorical spectacles and let her hair down to find marital bliss.
With its five plum acting roles, the play has had countless incarnations. On Broadway, it was a haven for the breathless eccentricities of Geraldine Page. On-screen, Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn played enjoyably shameless exaggerations of their personae: he, the testosterone-charged spellbinder; she, the Bryn Mawr tomboy-goddess fallen from her pedestal. The story reached its apotheosis in a musicalization by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, renamed 110 in the Shade. Here, the lush Aaron Coplandish score gave its TV-drama obviousness a lilting romanticism and emotional weight.
Re-encountering this ingratiating work of Americana at Ensemble Theatre is very like meeting an old crush at a high-school reunion: The charm is still evident, but the ensuing years have made it seem secondhand and given it strange warts and tics.
There is a backyard rummage-sale quality to the present cast and production, as if some genuine and splendid pieces are tossed haphazardly next to the bric-a-brac.
Laura Stitt's Lizzie Curry has none of the trapped, butterfly flutteriness of her illustrious predecessors. Her good-hearted, lonely farm girl has a voice that creaks desperation like a rusty hinge. It is a marvelous performance, but one more suited to Chekhov than to a Broadway fairy tale. When she gets her crack at happiness, by way of two men begging for her favors, it rings painfully hollow. It's like the Glass Menagerie's Laura being offered a Hollywood contract.
Starbuck, the play's rainmaker, is another in a long line of hypnotic con men who, from Professor Marvel to Harold Hill, have the legerdemain to turn snake oil into patent medicine. In this role, Joseph Bonamico sports an appropriate Robert Preston pompadour, yet in every other way, he elicits a flame far too weak to brighten a drab day, let alone warm the heart of a depressed spinster. They play their love scene as if inhabiting separate planets.
Bernard Canepari, who portays Lizzie's well-meaning father, is an actor who always brings to mind a Viking deity. He has a life-force that illuminates whatever stage he graces, including this one.
As the deputy sensitive enough to detect Lizzie's deeply hidden beauty, yet too ashamed to admit any kind of need, Stephen Vasse-Hansell is all languid grace notes. Long and lean, with a coyote-like presence, he combines the best qualities of brooding leading man and comic sidekick, a harmonious blending of Gary Cooper and Gabby Hayes.
This is a play where one kiss can transform an introvert, where a rainmaker can cause a torrent just in time to end a drought. It follows the same pulp logic that the heroine would have two brothers, one a pragmatist who needs to learn the meaning of belief, the other an impetuous Tom Sawyer who needs to learn common sense. It is heartening to see a play set in such a benevolent universe, where everyone gets exactly what he needs. As the pragmatist, Brian Fox infuses the stage with a hawk-like intensity, while Mark Rabant is so boyish, such a rapscallion, that we could visualize him co-starring on television with Lassie.
The Rainmaker is commercial play-making at its most savvy and buoyant: the stage equivalent of yesterday's fantasy-pleasing True Romance magazines. Here, slightly yellowed by overexposure, Lucia Colombi's uninspired direction, and a lack of chemistry, we have the remnants of a curious artifact, a pleasant drizzle instead of a triumphant deluge.
Playing at the exquisite small auditorium in the Music Hall is a one-man show, The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron? That one man is Robert Dubac, who acts as a new-age Chaucer, relating tales of mating in the age of the Internet. Dubac is such a skillful raconteur -- whether wiggling his ears or imitating a horny Frenchman -- that we can forgive him for reducing men and women to glossy stereotypes. But if you don't fit Dubac's heterosexual mold, you may feel left out in the cold.