N. Richard Nash's gentle romantic comedy The Rainmaker, which currently serves as the Cary Players Community Theatre Company season finale at the Cary Arts Center, exhibits both the graces and the flaws of the traditional well-made play. On the plus side: A set of vivid, likeable characters; intelligent and idiosyncratic dialogue which, together, provide the actors a rich feast to sink their collective teeth into; and a through-line that moves the story, and the figures within it, toward its sweetly inevitable climax with confident certainty. On the minus: A surfeit of expository remarks; a slightly threadbare reliance on pat plot mechanics; and an overall decency of intent that is, however pleasing, also credulity-straining.
Nash's chamber comedy — a modest success in 1955 with Geraldine Page and Darren McGavin as the plain farm daughter Lizzy Curry and Bill Starbuck, the cheerful con-man whose promise to bring rain to the parched land sets the conflicts to run — became a popular movie in 1957 (Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster were Lizzy and Starbuck). Best of all, its early 1960s musicalization served as the Broadway calling card for Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones following the phenomenon of The Fantastaicks. Their collaboration with Nash, now called 110 in the Shade, ran longer than the original and boasts a score that rates as one of the finest of its era — a musical-comedy that is nearly operatic in scope and composition, and a bit of whose plaintive, Coplandesque strains opens the Cary Players production.
Unfortunately, most of the actors here mistake longuers for tension, leaving the mind to wander and dwell on dramaturgical defect a swifter, and sharper, production might blot away. Nor is it helpful that so many lines are inadvertently dropped, leading to gaps in the narrative flow. The characterizations are largely skin-deep, the happy exceptions being Phil Crone as Lizzy's wily, loving father and Steve Whetzel, whose Starbuck errs toward the over-emphatic but who at least has presence. In the critical "old maid" scene between the con man and Lizzy, Natalie Turegon nearly rises to the occasion; Whetzel actually does.
The correct casting for Lizzy is crucial to The Rainmaker's impact. Without what Nash calls "an open display of good humor," Lizzy can seem self-pitying at best, like a bitter pill at the worst. Turegon tends to a strident, declamatory style, an over-fondness for eye rolling, and a penchant for petty snits where genuine anguish is called for.
Staci Sabarski has directed her cast to perform their monologues downstage, face-front to the audience, losing the vital connection between Nash's characters, and many scenes are played in too tight a space, making natural movement impossible. (Especially unfortunate in a brief, badly staged fight between the deputy sheriff File and Lizzy's younger brother Jim.)
Almost infinitely more successful are the lovely sets by Brad Sizemore, especially the rough, weathered slate of the tack-room and the bright, clean interior of the Curry home. Colorful, and authentic down to the icebox and crystal radio set, Sizemore's is a dream set, beautifully abetted by Michael Lefler's stylized lighting designs. If only there was a dream production to go with it.
Rainmaker continues through May 6. For details, see the sidebar.