Early last week, the Geary Theater underwent a seismic shift. The magnitude-5.6 tremor that hit the Bay Area a few minutes past 8 p.m. on Tuesday, October 30, caused the century-old building's walls to wobble like an old-fashioned wedding cake just as the lights went up on the opening-night performance of American Conservatory Theater's The Rainmaker. But the shift that occurred at the theater that night wasn't merely physical. It was also artistic.
Telling the story of an American farming family's dreams of rainfall during a time of drought, N. Richard Nash's sweet-sincere 1950s drama heralds a longed-for climate change at A.C.T. It's fair to say that San Francisco's flagship theater company has been dragging its heels over the past few seasons, its output characterized by bone-dry Tom Stoppard plays, lethargic renditions of classics, and the cloying A Christmas Carol. Imported productions such as The Black Rider and The Overcoat provided slight relief during what can only be described as a long dry spell. But the combination of Nash's refreshingly optimistic message and director Mark Rucker's deeply affecting production transformed the Geary stage from a desert into fertile ground that night.
In his production notes, Rucker describes The Rainmaker as "a valentine to a sweeter time." It's easy to see this romance-laced domestic drama, in which an enigmatic stranger turns up at a drought-blighted farm claiming rain-inducing powers and then stealing hearts, through rose-tinted glasses. With its cast of hillbilly homesteaders, old-fashioned courting rituals, and conversations that revolve around heifers, bookkeeping, and five-cylinder Essex automobiles, The Rainmaker might seem on the surface like an episode of The Waltons or Little House on the Prairie. Yet despite its cheery outlook and Rucker's ill-advised efforts to anchor the production in a 1930s landscape of cowboy boots and Stetsons, the play resists being tied to the past. Even set designer Robert Mark Morgan's clunky-faithful reconstruction of a homey old ranch in the American West complete with cast-iron stove, wooden sash windows, and windmill doesn't prevent the play from transcending geography and history. It feels very fresh.
The acting is largely responsible both for making this olde-worlde yarn seem new and renewing my faith in A.C.T. It's true that I've been pretty rude about the company's actors in the past. I've called Jack Willis "flamboyantly effete," dubbed Anthony Fusco a "bandylegged Big Bird," and chided poor René Augesen for allowing herself to be upstaged by her costume in Hedda Gabler. But this latest production makes me eat my words. The Rainmaker is, above all else, an actors' play, and the cast digs deep into the heart of Nash's drama to create an intimate bond between the play and us. I don't think I've ever seen an A.C.T. cast look as if they're having as much fun as they appear to be having here. Their enjoyment is infectious.
Augesen's performance as Lizzie Curry, the unhappily unmarried farmer's daughter and the sole female character of the play, is perhaps the most powerful. She was born to perform this role. The subtlety she brings to Lizzie, a complex character who swings from vivacious strength to pitiful self-hatred, suggests that the actor's true calling might lie in playing quirky tragic-comic protagonists rather than tragic heroines. Wearing a frumpy, schoolmarmish dress and an austerely coiffed brunette wig that clings as tightly to her skull as the character clings to her failing hopes at finding love, Augesen wears her lack of sex appeal with semi-resigned pride. She might be as "plain as old shoes," but she knows deep down that pretending to be a coquette would make her even uglier. Augesen is convincing even in the play's cheesiest scene. When rainmaker Bill Starbuck leads Lizzie through a rather ridiculous impromptu cognitive therapy session in a hayloft, making her take down her hair and repeat the words "I'm pretty," she seems to change before our eyes. The transformation is remarkable because it has little to do with the character's external appearance. Augesen makes Lizzie blossom from the inside.
Augesen gets help on the flowering front from Geordie Johnson's Starbuck. This character is total charisma. A gangly, imposing presence towering over all the others, Johnson recalls Peter Fonda in Easy Rider or Viggo Mortensen's rugged, bardlike turns in The Lord of the Rings and Hidalgo. We can't help but believe this guy can bring rain, and not just because of the evidence provided by the magnificent sweat patches that bloom under the armpits of his eggplant-colored cowboy shirt. There is mystery and magic in Johnson's performance. He's a shrink, a shaman, a poet, and a fake. He arrives on the scene like a deus ex machina, boasting about how he can single-handedly end the drought. But he leaves as a human being.
The other actors make the play bristle with humanity and good humor. One of the funniest and most touching scenes occurs when the three men in Lizzie's life — her father, H.C. Curry, and brothers Noah and Jimmy — find themselves dragged into Starbuck's hocus-pocus rain-inducing scheme. Jack Willis' empathetic and fun-loving H.C. turns up covered in white paint from having landed in a bush while attempting, as per Starbuck's instructions, to paint a massive arrow on the ground to deflect lightning. Stephen Barker Turner's surly Noah enters with a heavy limp after being kicked by the mule whose hind legs Starbuck ordered him to bind. Alex Morf's puppyish Jimmy runs around merrily banging Starbuck's thunder-invoking big bass drum, to the family's consternation. The characters' antics and their wildly contrasting responses to Starbuck's plan are funny and also strongly define each one's personality. Rod Gnapp and Anthony Fusco are equally humane as, respectively, the kindly Sheriff Thomas and his terse, "once-bitten-twice-shy" deputy, File.
Peopled with sympathetic, loving characters, the play might be unfashionably upbeat in its outlook. It's a bed of colorful, sweet-smelling flowers in a contemporary theatrical landscape mostly ransacked by pessimistic thorns and nettles. But Nash's core message about the power of self-belief as an essential tool for survival and growth in a difficult world is hardly a vehicle for nostalgia. If Arthur Miller shows us the dangers of dreaming your life away and David Mamet shows us the dangers of living your life without dreaming at all, Nash demonstrates a lucid middle ground: He makes us understand how a little dreaming goes a long way. "You're all dreams, and it's no good to live in your dreams," Lizzie tells Starbuck. "It's no good to live outside them, either!" he retorts. "Somewhere between the two," she suggests. The Rainmaker is a valentine to our own apathetic, embittered times. It gives even the most cynical and disenfranchised among us permission to dream, and in so doing, maybe even change ourselves and our environment for the better.
Self-belief is indeed a powerful thing, I thought, as I left the Geary Theater that night on a seismic high. It saves farms from drought, cities from earthquakes, and even theater companies from atrophy.