Understated con man sells First Folio's 'Rainmaker'
"Once in your life, you have to take a chance on a con man."
Self-described swindler Bill Starbuck utters those words in "The Rainmaker," N. Richard Nash's modest, oft-revived 1954 melodrama -- currently running outdoors at Oak Brook's First Folio Theater -- about the power of imagination and the need to temper one's hardscrabble reality with a bit of fantasy.
Fantasy is the stock in which this charismatic drifter trades. And it's what he tries to sell to the Currys, a ranching family battered by disappointment, drought and an economic depression in the dust bowl during the 1930s. The decision of whether to buy what Starbuck is selling divides the close-knit quartet, whose quiet affection for each other is one of the best things about director Alison C. Vesely's competent, unassuming revival.
Truly a family affair, "The Rainmaker" features Vesely's husband, First Folio's executive director David Rice, as widowed patriarch H.C. Curry. And it stars their daughter Hayley L. Rice as H.C's daughter Lizzie, an astute, clear-eyed young woman whose dwindling marital prospects have become her family's primary concern.
The action unfolds on a failing ranch (Angela Weber Miller's two-story skeleton of a farmhouse appears as a sanctuary against the arid plains of the southwest), owned by H.C. The ranch is managed by oldest son Noah (a nicely peevish, genuinely concerned Matthew Keffer), a plain-spoken pragmatist whose words too often wound the ones he loves. While Noah and younger brother Jim -- an endearingly naive, highly hormonal teenager zestfully played by the very funny Alex Weisman -- work the ranch, Lizzie tends their home.
Insinuating himself into this close-knit clan is Bill Starbuck (Joe Wycoff), a charismatic con man and self-styled "rainmaker." He promises to conjure a deluge despite the drought in exchange for $100, which H.C. readily supplies to the delight of Jim and the dismay of Noah and Lizzie, who recognize a swindler when they see one.
Hayley Rice does a nice job expressing Lizzie's pride and yearning, but her performance needs more nuance. Moreover, she and Wycoff lack the requisite chemistry to make Lizzie and Starbuck's romance credible. Case in point: their tack room tryst. It generates little heat and in fact seems less about prospective lovers coming together for the first time than two friends offering each other comfort. Which, of course, is exactly what happens. Starbuck makes Lizzie aware of her inner beauty, while Lizzie inspires in him the confidence he needs.
As for Wycoff, his understated Starbuck suggests the vulnerability of a man who, more than anything else, needs someone to believe he can make miracles. Less bombastic and more subtle than other Starbucks, Wycoff's counterintuitive performance works. As does Aaron Christensen's explosive turn as the tightly wound, too-proud Deputy File, the object of Lizzie's ill-fated attempt at flirtation and an embittered man who no longer believes in miracles.
Ultimately, "The Rainmaker" makes for a pleasant summer diversion, a reminder that injecting a bit of fantasy into one's reality isn't just possible, it's necessary.
"The Rainmaker"★ ★ ★
Location: Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067, firstfolio.org
Showtimes: 8:15 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday; through Sept. 1
Running time: About two hours, 10 minutes, with intermission
Parking: Free lot adjacent to the estate
Rating: For most audiences