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THEATER REVIEW: “The Rainmaker” at The Old Globe

The earth is parched and so are the souls in the Curry household. But patriarch H.C. (John Judd) and sons Noah (Peter Douglas) and Jim (Kyle Harris) are monomaniacally focused not on the lack of rain but on the dwindling marriage prospects of the only woman in the house, 27-year-old Lizzie (Dannielle Skraastad).

Why is this so important? Because the place is a drought-ridden rural town in the West; the time, the 1930s, when women’s lives were determined and defined by the men they married. The play is N. Richard Nash’s 1954 “The Rainmaker,” onstage through Aug. 11 at The Old Globe.

No-nonsense Lizzie, labeled “plain” by older brother Noah – who also undiplomatically tells her that she’ll be an old maid – has just returned from a humiliating “family” visit where she was inspected like cattle by the three sons of marriageable age.

“If you want to get a man,” Noah counsels, “you got to get him in the way a man gets got.”

Lizzie is smart and a good cook and housekeeper, but she’s neither a great beauty nor the most vivacious creature around, and small talk is not her forte. The mere thought of engaging in the type of feminine flirtatious banter Noah is talking about seems to paralyze Lizzie’s vocal cords (though Skraastad nails it when she parodies it).

The likeliest prospect for Lizzie is sheriff’s deputy File (Tug Coker), divorced (though he insists on calling himself a widower) and just as pigheaded about playing the courting game as Lizzie. It’s a perfect match – except for the awkward silence that engulfs both when they find themselves alone in a room.

Hopes and dreams are fading fast, when out of nowhere a stranger appears at the door. He introduces himself as “Bill Starbuck, Rainmaker” (Gbenga Akinnagbe), and claims that for $100 he can bring rain to the parched earth.

Can Starbuck bring rain and maybe a little magic too? Noah and Lizzie are more than skeptical – they as much as call him a charlatan. But impressionable young Jim is enthralled by the stranger, and H.C., in search of some magic himself, is willing to give him a try. Even Lizzie’s world will be changed by this stranger.

If the issues here are a bit musty from a feminist perspective, Director Maria Mileaf makes it work by playing those down and highlighting Lizzie’s strength as well as the general loneliness at the core of the story. She’s helped immensely by Neil Patel’s gorgeous (and clever) big-as-all-outdoors set, Japhy Weideman’s expansive lighting and Katherine Roth’s fine costumes.

Mileaf’s fine cast is mostly new to the Globe. The Curry men are perfectly cast: Judd’s Curry père, kindly and concerned, plays off nicely against Douglas’ elder son Noah, manager of the Curry ranch, who has the soul of a CPA.

Harris is a hoot as Jim, the youngest son, trusting, enthusiastic, kid-like and not the brightest bulb in the group.

Coker and Skraastad made me ache as File and Lizzie – a pair of loners who don’t want to be lonely, but lack the social skills required to make a connection.

The lone weak spot is Akinnagbe, an accomplished stage, screen and TV actor whose Starbuck failed in the persuasiveness department.

San Diego has a history with rainmakers: back in 1915, a rainmaker named Hatfield claimed to bring a real gullywasher that flooded out Mission Valley, burst dams and destroyed whole communities.

This “Rainmaker” is the kinder, gentler version of this story about men without women, women without men and ranches without water – and a lovely production.

The details

“The Rainmaker” plays through Aug. 11 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.