Review: A.C.T.'s 'Rainmaker' rocks

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, of 6.9 magnitude on what used to be called the Richter Scale, made the roof of the (unoccupied) Geary Theater cave in.

Eighteen years later, at the exact moment as the curtain went up Tuesday night on the A.C.T. premiere of N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker,” the rebuilt, seismically upgraded (and fully occupied) theater was gently rocked by a 5.6 quake. There were some whispered acknowledgments, “it’s a quake,” but the play went on, attention was being paid, and by intermission conversations had to do with the performance, not the jolt.

San Franciscans are pretty tough when it comes to temblors, but they are easy prey to sentimental con jobs. That would be “The Rainmaker,” in a successful, well received performance of a play very similar to its title character.

Just as Bill Starbuck (Geordie Johnson) pulls the wool over the eyes of a drought-stricken, Depression-era town with promises of rain and slogans of self-affirmation (of the “you’re as beautiful as you believe yourself to be” school), Nash entertains and even enchants with a simplistic, romantic play that stands the test of time (over half a century) surprisingly well. (Speaking of strange things, wasn’t Burt Lancaster’s outsized, scenery-chewing Starbuck in the 1956 film a great, weirdly convincing performance?)

The A.C.T. production — Mark Rucker’s direction, Robert Mark Morgan’s smoothly sliding stage design — features an excellent cast, one which will get even better during the run (through Nov. 25) when some of the actors will not try so hard. Less would be definitely more.

No improvement is possible in case of Jack Willis, the actor with the most marvelous voice in all theater, as the benign, decent, overburdened head of the Curry family. Stephen Barker Turner is Noah, the older son, who “doesn’t believe in miracles,” the bum. The very young Alex Morf plays the younger brother, with verve and excess; the character is already writ large, it doesn’t need amplification.

René Augesen is featured as Lizzie Curry, the plain-girl character at the heart of the play. She excels both in her agony over the fate-worse-than-death possibility of becoming an “old maid,” and — especially — in her comic moments, trying to behave as the “successful girls.” (It’s truly amazing that the play survives the mindset in which Nash had made it operate.)

Anthony Fusco makes a fine contribution as File, the once-bitten-twice-shy deputy, the male equivalent of Lizzie, with her shyness and self-doubt. A scene with Augesen and Fusco is one of the highlights of the evening. Rod Gnapp is the kind, supportive, wise Sheriff — in a play without a bad guy in sight, with the possible exception of Noah the skeptic. And yet, in Nash’s world, there is hope even for him, for all of us, everyone, if only we believe.

IF YOU GO

The Rainmaker

Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. most Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays; plus 7 p.m. Nov. 6 and 18; closes Nov. 25

Tickets: $17 to $82

Contact: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org

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