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No-Spinster Zone

Susannah Greenwood's Lizzie belies the societal stigma in Northside's 'Rainmaker'

By Marianne Messina

'THERE IS NO such thing as a plain woman"—rah, rah. Hear that ladies? That's the wisdom of the con artist, dreamer and self-reputed rainmaker Bill Starbuck from Richard Nash's play The Rainmaker. But Northside Theatre's gentle production of the play might just convince you it's true. Though by today's standards there are countless stigmas more tragic than spinsterhood (like, say, not being a millionaire by 30), Northside's touching, funny, portrayal of the unmarried Lizzie Curry and her family transcends outdated premises.

In a prodigious performance as Lizzie, Susannah Greenwood gives us enough subtle posture, demeanor and facial expression to show us a woman who could easily be considered "plain." Yet she also convinces us how wrong her brother, Noah (Chuck Phelps), is when he tells her that she is doomed to be an old maid. Greenwood can do intelligence with her eyes, and her Lizzie is just too quick and self-possessed to be an also-ran.

This dynamic in Lizzie lends credence to rainmaker Bill Starbuck (Matt Singer) as her champion, so we see less of the con man and more of the spark he ignites. (Starbuck admits he created the name because he needed one with "the whole sky in it and the power of a man"). Though the Currys are a likable and amusing lot, subdued performances before the rainmaker's arrival (sidestepping the temptation to bark for jokes) give them stage presence slightly blander than the salt of the Earth. Thus Starbuck's entry is all the more brilliant.

Full of life and charisma, Singer's fast-talking but never frenzied Starbuck embodies a missing ingredient, and he sets off the low-keyed Currys like a catalyst. Suddenly the performances fire up, and the tension winds up—this production makes it palpable. Like the easygoing (but not timid) H.C. Curry (Jeff Barber) and his skeptical daughter, Lizzie, we're ready to stake something on this Starbuck, whether his words are true or not.

Amid the hay bales, the wooden dinner table and the lazy front porch of Richard T. Orlando's three-zoned set, a seamless flow between scenes with very few blackouts brings us smooth, crisp action. Well-timed sound (Larry Barrott with KOL Productions) and kinesics allow the sullen Sheriff File to pull off a startling, visceral punch when Jim Curry's exuberance pushes his buttons the wrong way. (Can you spell lawsuit? Apparently in the play's 1950s heyday, they couldn't.)

Kevin Hsieh plays a winsome, starry-eyed Jimmy, whom the realist brother Noah tries to keep on a short leash. And Jake Vincent's performance as File is exceptional, partly thanks to Orlando's consistent directorial choices not to misrepresent old-school macho with a lot of thunderous bluster. Vincent gives File a stoical reticence that is neither stubborn, tough nor angry. Instead, it smolders from a deeper place and makes Sheriff File as unsettling as he is attractive. This is a play about stripping all the "What would people think?" and "How does this make me look?" from an act until it comes unpremeditated from the heart. And the depth of Northside's production builds Nash's well-balanced script into a final recognition that taking a step forward doesn't come from one magical person carrying truth but from the magic of people interacting truthfully.

The Rainmaker, a Northside Theatre Company production, plays Thursday­Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through May 1 at Olinder Theater, 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $12/$15. (4082887820)

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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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