THEATER REVIEW: ‘110 in the Shade’ Directed by Scot Charles Anderson; music direction by Mark Rabe | Book by N. Richard Nash; lyrics by Tom Jones; music by Harvey Schmidt | Produced by Reboot Theatre Company with Seattle Public Theatre | Tickets $5–$50 | Through April 9
In Reboot Theatre’s new production, “110 in the Shade,” staged at and in partnership with Seattle Public Theatre, the forecast is curious: weather-related drama abounds, alongside storms of passion and a strong dose of musical numbers. This subtly rebellious take on N. Richard Nash’s 1960s musical, which itself is based on Nash’s 1954 play “The Rainmaker,” breaks new ground in familiar territory by subverting the original’s themes of gender roles and societal expectations.
In a small town facing a seemingly eternal drought, there is a desperation for rain bordering on obsession. On the stage, where the centerpiece is a lone windmill, we meet characters with wildly different personalities and only one common thread binding them: the thirst for rain. How lucky, then, when a man suddenly appears one day promising to bring rain to their town in exchange for $100. The man introduces himself as both Starbuck and “the Rainmaker,” and he should seem too good to be true, but in their despair almost all of the townspeople take his word as truth and willingly welcome him in. All of them, in fact, save for one: Lizzie Curry, portrayed by the arresting Paris Manzanares, who proves herself a star in every scene she’s in.
In her portrayal of Lizzie, Manzanares shows us a woman of many juxtapositions: soft and headstrong, questioning yet determined and quick while often hesitant. Balancing all these complexities is the key to making Lizzie a three-dimensional character, and Manzanares takes on this task with grace. She reminds us that although the story’s original title was Starbuck’s pseudonym, the true protagonist is actually Lizzie. She is his greatest challenge, and the thrill for the audience is in deciphering whether the crackling tension between both characters will remain hostile or develop into a love story.
“110 in the Shade” strays from Nash’s “The Rainmaker” only in its addition of songs, which inject whimsy into the tale and give us deeper insights into characters’ inner lives (this is especially the case with Lizzie and Starbuck). Music aside, the structure and dialogue is remarkably faithful to “The Rainmaker,” which strengthens the scenes in between the songs. Nash’s greatest gift lies in capturing the nuances and subtleties that shape a character’s motivations.
Under the direction of Scot Charles Anderson, the play feels loyal to its roots while making choices that shift the lens through which we view the story, challenging the gender roles that are consistently present throughout Nash’s script. This accomplishment is reached not only through the casting choices but also by the shifty way in which lines in the script that originally stuck to an expected gender critique are subverted. This is done with humor and panache, often pointing out incongruencies in society’s treatment of women while poking fun at patriarchal norms influencing men’s behavior and, again, their treatment of women. The ways in which men define women’s sense of self is never an obvious theme but an undercurrent, leaving the audience to question Lizzie’s journey and desires and whether or not they are entirely her own.
Much of the success in Reboot’s “110 in the Shade” is in elevating the appeal of supporting characters who were never given much space to shine before. In both the play and the musical, and even in the 1956 film adaptation of “The Rainmaker,” the spotlight is quite firmly on Starbuck and Lizzie. However, the potential in its supporting cast feels realized, finally, in this production.
Performances worth noting abound: Natalie Anne Moe as the antagonistic Noah Curry, Lizzie’s pessimistic and hypercritical brother who ironically helps us see how wrong his perception of Lizzie is in scenes where Noah attempts to reduce Lizzie’s self-esteem under the guise of “real talk”; Ricky Spaulding as Sheriff File gives us a gruff man who is reluctant to express his emotions, thereby lending the final scenes the sense that we’ve witnessed the completion of an arc; and Walden Barnett Marcus as Jimmy Curry brings an endearingly naïve and youthful spirit that one can’t help but root for. I found myself invested in his storyline in a way that I hadn’t been in other versions of “The Rainmaker” and “110 in the Shade.” The delightful “Little Red Hat,” Barnett Marcus’ duet with Tessa James as Snookie instantly won me over and became a highlight of the show.
Last but not least, there would be no “110 in the Shade” without the Rainmaker. June Apollo Johns shows up so fully in each scene that their charisma makes us willfully overlook the con the townspeople are becoming wrapped up in, and, after a while, we fall for it ourselves. Johns’ flair and extravagance are alluring enough to make the impossible sales pitch impossible to dismiss. This charisma is vital to making us connect to Lizzie’s psyche as she gets pulled into the Rainmaker’s orbit, for Johns’ performance woos the audience, too, wrapping us up in the Rainmaker’s version of the truth.
Sixty years have passed since Nash published the original play, and that time has brought a lot of social change, along with new challenges for marginalized communities. Women and queer and nonbinary folks have made progress but certainly still grapple with a lot of the same human questions that come with existing in a society founded on patriarchal values. While this production doesn’t explicitly target these themes, Reboot’s “110 in the Shade” does something more powerful: It refuses to adhere to the oversimplified roles written back then and reinterprets them with a sharp focus on every individual’s emotional process.
Hidden in the dry landscape of a small town, you will discover an oasis of performances that make any drought worth journeying through. Reboot, in its first partnership with Seattle Public Theater, has created a world where it may never rain, but every character always shines.
Johannes Saca is a writer and artist based in Seattle. Find him on Instagram/Twitter @JohannesSaca.
Read more of the Mar. 29-April 4, 2023 issue.