The recent Broadway revival of N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker is innovative in a number of ways. For one thing, it has rain.
According to scenic designer James Noone, "It's never rained in The Rainmaker. It only rains in the musical version, 110 in the Shade." As any viewer of AMC, where the film version (with Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn) seems to run hourly, knows, The Rainmaker is set in a Midwestern town during a drought. Farmer H.C. Potter is worried about the fate of his crops; he's even more worried about Lizzie, his daughter, who is rapidly attaining spinster status. Then a flamboyant character named Starbuck appears on the scene, announcing he can produce rain for a price. However, the biggest storm he unleashes is in Lizzie, who wakes up for the first time to the power of romance. (Of course, the movie has rain, lots of it.)
But there was never any rain onstage. Noone says that the original 1954 production featured a realistic farmhouse interior setting: "Richard Nash said, when the play opened out of town, Starbuck left and that was it. Then, right before the New York opening, Nash's son said, 'You know, it never rains,' so he wrote some in. That's when he figured out why his play didn't have a cathartic ending. So they had a storm, which took place offstage."
It rained buckets at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where the Roundabout Theatre Company revival was staged, thanks to the wizardry of special effects designer Gregory Meeh. But the climactic rain was the only attention-grabbing aspect of Noone's otherwise spare and elegant design. The Curry farmhouse consisted of some furniture and a door frame set against a far-off horizon of dry Midwestern plains, with a little town visible in the distance, and rows of wheat stalks placed at the rear of the deck.
"Scott [Ellis, the director] really wanted to open up the play so it could rain," says Noone, who adds that the horizon was important because "I wanted to get a sense of a town that was in the middle of nowhere," and, consequently, "where everybody is important to everybody else. But I didn't want it to be realistic. It's a simple play and I wanted a set where the actors weren't overshadowed by a lot of real scenery." Furthermore, he adds, the play, with its somewhat pitying attitude towards Lizzie, needs special handling for modern audiences. "You have to find a way to look at that story in today's terms. I wanted the audience to always know they were in the theatre, with these actors telling an American story."
Oddly, the designer's biggest challenge was the lack of space. He designed the production originally for Williamstown Theatre Festival, which has an unusually deep stage (Noone estimates it at 35' deep). The set for The Rainmaker places the Curry household on the main stage, with a forestage added for scenes in other locations, such as the deputy sheriff's office occupied by File, Lizzie's most likely suitor. Noone notes that the forestage led to the elimination of three rows of orchestra seats, but even so, he says, "I had to cut 15' off of what I had at Williamstown. The RP screen upstage [behind the horizon] is, literally, a foot and a half from the back wall of the theatre."
Even so, a simple setting can have many challenges. For example, the wheat: Noone, who notes that God doesn't grow wheat in forced perspective, describes the process: "[Properties director] Worth Strecker found a wheat farmer in Michigan, but the tallest you can buy wheat is 2', or a little more. So Nancy Harrington [Roundabout's director of production] hired 15 people, and, for a week and a half, they hot-glued 15,000 pieces of wheat to little dowels," which were then planted in a Styrofoam base. The wheat, which was also fireproofed, ranged from 2' to 5-1/2' in height.
Then, of course, there was the rain. To avoid rotting, Noone says the deck was made of signboard. Also, "There are drainage tanks under the deck. There's a spa ce between each board, where the water goes. I like that; every time you see a show with grating, there's a big grating downstage [acting as a drain], so you always know it's going to rain." The rain came out of four pipes overhead, and was stored in a tank on the theatre's roof. The designer estimates that 500 gallons were used at each performance. He gives all credit to Meeh for the effect: "When the Roundabout wanted to do The Rainmaker, I said, 'The first person you have to call is Greg Meeh.' " Fortunately, the wheat was far enough upstage to stay dry, but the play's final image was of the leading characters onstage, thoroughly, joyously soaked. Proving you can't call your play The Rainmaker unless you plan to deliver.
The Rainmaker, which gave Woody Harrelson his successful Broadway debut as Starbuck, also featured costumes by Jess Goldstein, lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, sound by Brian Ronan, and hair by David Brian Brown. Unitel provided technical supervision and Hudson Scenic Studios built the set. Vicki Davis, Jane Epperson, and William Moser were the assistant scenic designers. The production ran October through January.