Review: The Rainmaker (The James Downing Theatre)


An uneven portrayal of Classic Americana



The James Downing Theatre presents
The Rainmaker
Written by N. Richard Nash
Directed by Floyd A. May
at The John Waldron Arts Center, 6740 N. Oliphant (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $5-$20  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There’s so much to both love and be disappointed in James Downing Theatre’s revival of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker. Director Floyd A. May’s set design (co-designed with Joshua Dlouhy) is crammed with authentic props that create a truthful tone for a hearty Depression Era melodrama. Unfortunately, the set is just too jumbled and cramped to accommodate the play’s scenes, from the Curry family home, to the sheriff’s office, to the barn where the visiting Rainmaker, Bill Starbuck (Michael Rashid) stays the night. May’s direction also varies over the course of the play, from flat and pedestrian to vivid, exciting, touching and inspiring. Watching this Rainmaker is like taking a journey down a bumpy country road. One is sure to hit dull and dusty pockets. But turn the bend and, suddenly, the beauty of Nash’s morality tale about retaining faith while never eschewing plain reality zooms into full view.

Rainmaker34bH.C. Curry (in a warm and gracious performance by David Kravitz) is the play’s gentle, wise, observant patriarch, seeing his farm and family through the worst drought in years. They suffer from a drought of the spirit as well as the parched land their livelihood depends on and Lizzie (Liz Hoffman), his unmarriageable daughter, stands as its quintessential symbol.

Intelligent, industrious, and truthful to a fault, Lizzie can’t get a man–if getting a man means surrendering her brain and playing a vacuous, empty-headed flirt. Hoffman has regaled Chicago audiences with her portrayal of Lala in Last Night of Ballyhoo and even put sublime silliness into her shlock comedy role as Vicki in The Well of Horniness. Here, however, her performance starts and stalls in authentically portraying a 1930s woman whose primary goal in life is to fall in love, get married and have a family; whose biggest fear is that her plain looks and plain talk with men will keep her from those goals. Nash’s writing never strays from traditional gender roles and perhaps now they seem too staid and unyielding to seem credible. But they were once fiercely imbedded in American culture. The terror of becoming an old maid once had, not just emotional consequences, but also social and economic ones. A consistent, fully embodied Lizzie still requires total investment in that old-school frame of mind.

Even though the play focuses on the Curry family’s attempts to find Lizzie a man, it’s just as much about how its men respond to the vicissitudes of love and relationship. As File, Shannon Parr brings every ounce of proud, stoic testosterone to the loner deputy that H.C. and his sons, Noah (Michael Mejia) and Jim (Micah Fortenberry), pursue for Lizzie’s prospective mate. But he’s just as much an emblem for how masculine pride can get in the way of love. Jim, on the other hand, has no problem finding love, regardless of how his brother Noah disparages his affair with Snookie, a local country hottie. Mejia has no problem pulling off Noah’s hardnosed approach to life but could use a little more nuance to prevent his character from devolving into caricature. Fortenberry, on the other hand, resiliently displays all Jim’s turns of exuberance, joy and playfulness, counterbalanced with his confusion, frustration, dismay and exasperation over Noah’s disapproval of him.


That leaves Bill Starbuck, the wild-eyed dreamer who throws everything into temporary chaos. Much as I wanted to buy into Rashid’s presentation of Starbuck in miracle worker/con man mode, much of this aspect of his performance just didn’t read. Selling the Curry family on the notion that he can bring rain is too forced. Instead, Rashid is far more powerful in Starbuck’s toned down, intimate moments connecting with Lizzie. In fact, their barn scene together is pure tenderness. Just as tender is H.C. trying to tell Noah why Lizzie must have her moment with Starbuck. If there’s one truly transgressive moment in The Rainmaker, it’s that one.

Unevenness hampers James Downing Theatre’s production, but the show is not without intense moments of beauty, humor and humanity. It even throws in a little excitement with an excellently choreographed fight scene. Now if only it could be pulled together in one vibrant whole. Certainly the promise is there.

Rating: ★★½



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REVIEW: Sleepwalk (The James Downing Theatre)


Sleepwalking through life – a play for teens, by teens



The James Downing Theatre presents
Written by William Mastrosimone
Directed by
Thomas Akouris
at John Waldron Arts Center, 6740 N. Oliphant (
through Nov. 21  | 
tickets: $15-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is something funny, frank, and charming about The James Downing Theatre’s amateur production, Sleepwalk, a one-act play by Emmy award-winning William Mastrosimone, cast with mostly non-professional teenage actors. That’s how the playwright intended it—a drama about teen suicide performed by teens for teens. The production is part of the cultural mission of James Downing Theatre, sponsored by the Edison Park United Methodist Church, to raise awareness within the community about this dark but all-too-timely subject.

Young Dillion (Stephen Fenstermacher) faces the depressing prospect of his parents’ divorce, on top of all the other hormonal and social trials of adolescence. When his idol, Rock Star (Erik Enberg) takes his own life, Dillion spirals deeper into depression, contemplating suicide and keeping an already written suicide PB011469note with him in his pocket. The play begins with Dillion in a dream state, encountering figures that take him on a stream-of-consciousness emotional journey to the center of his pain and despair. Opposing him is Amygdala (Michael Mejia), a sly, tough, hip-hop Superfly of an Id, who overloads Dillion with negative emotions. Zen Master (Charles Wimmer) attempts to give Dillion some Buddhist balance and guidance to help him weather the psychological storms. But Dillion also has to recognize his overdependence on the figure of the Rock Star to give his life meaning and value.

Dillion’s dream is about reclaiming himself. As the protagonist, Fenstermacher has a personable Everyman quality about him. He can nail Dillion’s anhedonia with almost clinical accuracy. To the extent that Director Thomas Akouris draws natural and immediate performances from his non-professional cast, the show succeeds—and no doubt will succeed in reaching its intended audience with its most necessary message. All the same, expect rough, homespun, uneven acting from the lead and most of the cast. Mejia stands out by delivering his hip-hop verse with moxy and May Flowers (Anisa Pashaj for our showing), Dillion’s hippy girlfriend, is fresh and easy-going in her humorous, sassy and caring role.

It would be nice to see this play produced with more experienced actors and in a theater space that doesn’t flatten sight lines. The only thing that isn’t amateurish about Sleepwalk is Mastrosimone’s script. Still, I doubt that these issues are of any concern to the production or the playwright. Theater that incites discussion and gets communities to pay attention to the emotional trouble teens face in their schools and homes is the real goal here, not critical accolades. What Sleepwalk needs is not a critic but a young audience that needs to be aware of the troubled mind—and that there is help and hope at hand. 

Rating: ★★
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Artistic and Production Team

Stephen E. Fenstermacher as Dillon and Erik Enberg as Rock Star head the cast, which also includes Anisa Pashaj, Jessica Perelman, Yoni Hankin, Michael Mejia, Charles Wimmer and Eric Bruce.

Lighting and sound design is by Steve Kedzierski. Set design is by Joshua Dlouhy. The stage manager is Mary Schenk.


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