Kathie Isaac-Luke

Sierra Repertory Theatre has opened a first-rate production of N. Richard Nash's classic American play, "The Rainmaker."

Set in the 1930s in a Western state suffering from a prolonged drought and heat wave, the story centers on the Curry family, which is endeavoring to survive on their arid ranch.

Cattle are dying and crops are failing, and like their neighbors, the family is struggling to make ends meet.

Lizzy Curry cooks and keeps house for her father and two brothers. She has been told so often that she is plain and spinsterish, she has come to believe it, and has resigned herself to a life of loneliness.

Independent and intelligent, Lizzy is adored by her younger brother, Jimmy, and by her father, the easygoing H.C.

Noah, the older brother, is entrusted with keeping the books for the ranch and is frustrated by what he considers his father's lack of focus. Noah has assumed for himself the role of disciplinarian and tries to impose his values on the rest of the family, often at the expense of their aspirations.

Into this mix comes Starbuck, a charismatic stranger who promises to produce rain - for a fee.

Lizzy and Noah are suspicious, but H.C. and Jimmy want to give him a chance. Although Starbuck may be a smooth talking con, he at least has a heart and offers some hope.

The family cannot know that he will act as a catalyst and will change the way they look at the world and at themselves.

The direction by Dennis Jones is steady and deliberate and allows the outstanding cast an opportunity to create complex characters that are appealing and believable.

Karen LaMoureaux, who was last seen at SRT in "Dial M for Murder," is wonderful in the role of Lizzy. While trying to fend off her brothers' attempts at matchmaking, she manages to convince us that she is "plain," all the while radiating a luminous inner beauty.

SRT company actor Ty Smith plays the wise and loving father with confidence and humor. There is never any doubt that H.C. wants his children to be happy, and the scenes between him and his daughter are infused with tenderness.

Even when conflicts arise with Noah, he is evenhanded and understanding.

David Campfield, who has appeared in many plays in the Sacramento area, achieves just the right degree of intensity as the rigid Noah.

Stern and blunt, Noah wants what is best for the family, but has to arrive at the realization that some things are not within his control.

Making his SRT debut, Adam Celentano is delightful as the irrepressible younger brother, Jimmy. Bounding with energy and optimism, Jimmy has a trusting personality which endears him to the audience.

He is the perfect counterpoint to Noah's close-mindedness, and the two are frequently in conflict. Yet, Jimmy knows exactly what he wants and sets about to get it.

Clayton B. Hodges gives a memorable performance as File, Lizzy's wary suitor. Having experienced rejection, File is guarded about pursuing another relationship. Given his reluctance and Lizzy's lack of confidence, the two dance around each other without connecting for much of the play.

Sonora actor Gary Holman is very impressive in an all-too-brief role as Sheriff Thomas.

Louis Lotorto does an excellent job in the boisterous and larger than life role of Bill Starbuck. For a man who makes his living deceiving people, Starbuck proves to be surprisingly self-aware and sensitive to others.

Lotorto ably captures these nuances of his character. His brief interactions with the other characters facilitate their overcoming preconceived ideas and reaching for forgiveness, faith and hope.

The intricate and spacious set designed by Dennis Jones has a lived-in look and draws in the audience. The muted lighting by Chris Littman gives the ranch house interior warmth, and captures the feeling of twilight where many of the scenes occur.

Bina Bieker created the homespun costumes which add to the play's sense of time and place.

Superbly acted and directed, this production of "The Rainmaker" is both thoughtful and humorous. With its themes of belonging, tolerance, and the importance of dreams even in the most difficult of times, the play has achieved a measure of relevance which seems timeless.

"The Rainmaker" runs through April 23 at the Fallon House Theater in Columbia. For reservations, call 532-3120 or visit www. sierrarep.org.