It’s well into the first act of Yellow Tree Theatre’s poignant production of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker when the scoundrel Starbuck intrudes on the scene. Until then we’ve seen a well performed, spiritually claustrophobic set-up, on the Plains in the era of the Depression, where Lizzie Curry (Dawn Brodey) lives with her father and male siblings amidst a growing sense that her prospects for marriage are irreparably waylaid by her physical ordinariness and over-active intellect.
Lizzie is no passive victim, though, however constrained by her time and circumstance—and Brodey lends her a welcome intelligence and humor with flashes of fear underneath (what is to become of her, runs a harrowing undercurrent). She’s also the sun around which the men orbit: her loving, romantic father (Pat O’Brien), perpetually angry brother Noah (James Rodriguez), and sweet doofus sibling Jim (Nathan Cousins).
It’s when Starbuck (Peter Christian Hansen), the titular would-be drought-buster arrives, that the internal contradictions get blown wide open. Hansen is doing revelatory work here, blasting out the border between Starbuck’s bad faith and real faith, his masculine charm and consuming self-doubt, and his not-so-gradual realization that he’s pretty much arrived on a silver platter for Lizzie, who is riding on oceanic currents of unexpressed frustration and the terror of feeling that her best moments in life might have come to naught, with none of the humble satisfaction she craves (and deserves).
What follows is paced with a taut emphasis on character and storytelling that allows this simple story to breathe with humanity until we’re invested in the fate of everyone on stage, including the acerbic lawman File (Jason Peterson), who emerges as perhaps a more sensible love match for Lizzie (but since when have love matches ever been entirely sensible?).
Coming in at a no-fat two hours under the direction of Craig Johnson, this production hums with a sense of purpose and a heartfelt examination of themes that matter to all of us: love versus loneliness, dreams versus pragmatism, belief versus self-protective retreat from the hurt that comes from thwarted hope. Brodey and Hansen lead the charge here, with chemistry and a legitimate grace amid a fleeting love that would well be unbelievable in other hands. The ensemble also turns in work that make each character a convincing, sympathetic part of the whole.
There’s a unique pleasure in discovering a new small theater—at least for me—and Yellow Tree has hooked me with this one. It’s a small production of a play that could be called unpretentious without insult, particularly when it finds the emotional core of its material with such assurance.
The Rainmaker plays at Yellow Tree Theatre through October 12. yellowtreetheatre.com