Eugene Weekly : Theater : 6.11.2009


Another Helping of Hope
Cottage Theatre hearkens back to the Depression again
by Anna Grace

Jimmy Curry (Nick Forrest), Noah Curry (Ken McClintock) and Lizzy Curry (Storm Kennedy)

It is hot, dry, still. The air is red with earth and heat as the dustbowl slowly and inexorably suffocates the farming communities of the Great Plains. 

The Curry family is resourceful in these hard times, but they are out of water, and cattle won’t survive on dirt and wind. Failure is imminent. Until slick-talking con man Starbuck (Eric Christian Smith) shows up, selling rain. Why do the pragmatic Currys take him up on his offer? They desperately want to feel hope again. Or so we see in Cottage Theatre’s The Rainmaker, a 1950s classic that somehow lives on in 2009.

The drought is mirrored in the character of Lizzie (Storm Kennedy), who is also “drying up.” In her thirties and unmarried, Lizzie has exhausted her resources. She’s smart and capable but unwilling to play the games required of women to catch a man, so she’s staring down a spinster’s life. The Rainmaker by Richard Nash, which appeared first onstage in 1954,  is a favorite for revival. Why do pragmatic audiences of the 21st century buy what it’s selling? While your average Willamette Valley person might not easily relate to prayers for marriage, much less rain, it’s likely everyone older than 25 has experienced a crisis of hope. And that is the essential point of this play: Miracles can happen when you let hope in.

Idealized views of folksy family values are about as useful as Steve Weibe’s recent Donkey Kong efforts, and almost as appealing. What makes this script so interesting is that the Curry family doesn’t work well together. Big Brother Noah (Ken McClintock) is a hopeless sourpuss who believes the kindest thing he can do for his family is cut them down and cobble their expectations of this world. Young Jim (Nick Forrest) is unrestrained in his joy and innocence, a relentless Tigger to his brother’s Eeyore. The Currys don’t really come together in this crisis but rather assert their independence and thus rekindle that family fealty. 

The staging and set dressing of The Rainmaker remind me of an old quilt. Muted colors of sky and earth are echoed in the costumes and lighting. You might ignore a small corner of the stage for most of the production, only to watch it come alive with four men and a fight scene. Director Reva Kaufman pieces it all together with a quality cast, creating something beautiful. Apparently people were cast solely on the ability to act, rather than age, which made for an interesting experience — a bit like a really good high school play in reverse. Once I figured out how old everyone was supposed to be, I was impressed by how well they played it. Similarly, Storm Kennedy was able to act plain, while she is anything but, for all they tried to costume her in burlap. 

By a funny coincidence, Cottage Theatre presents its second in two back-to-back Depression-era pieces of hope against the odds. The theater didn’t plan to be relevant in the midst of our national economic crisis; it just got lucky. Or rather, we did. With a cast of mostly newcomers, an experienced and innovative director and a pleasant script that appeals to their subscribers, the Cottage Theatre has stuck a balance between crowd-pleasing entertainment and art, one that gives its audience hope. 

The Rainmaker continues through June 21 at Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove. Tix at or 942-8001.