What do a Native American Indian, a young scientist, a quiet young woman, and her older husband (also a scientist) all have in common? No, this is not a scenario leading into a punch line of a silly joke. Actually, these are everyday people in Lanford Wilson”s World Premiere of “Rain Dance.”
“Rain Dance” is the first play to open in the newly renovated Purple Rose Theater in downtown Chelsea. Owned by actor Jeff Daniels (originally from Chelsea), the restored Purple Rose Theater has sparked the interest of both the town”s residents and other communities. The hype from Chelsea”s new and pleasing venue draws numerous audience members to see its first performance.
Along with the few clues that one is fed throughout the show, “Rain Dance” begins with the feeling of perplexity most likely experienced by the first question above. In fact, this question is central to the main conflict that takes place in “Rain Dance.” It is 1945 and Hank (Matt Letscher), a young American scientist, is staying in Los Alamos, New Mexico, working with his colleagues on a top-level research project.
The story begins when Hank is speaking with Tony (Billy Merasty) in the “Cantina,” a lodge basically located in the middle of nowhere the desert. Tony, a Native American soldier who had recently served in the war, speaks and acts coolly and confidently. Careful to say only what he means, he finds himself unable to relate to Hank”s anxious and eccentric style. Hank, who just won”t stop flapping his mouth, is obviously worried about something, although he attempts to make small talk about Hank”s rituals and traditions as a Native American. Tony is annoyed and it”s apparent that the two can”t relate to each other
Letscher”s performance is believable and impressive. His acting ability, evident in his recent film credit, “The Mask of Zorro,” can clearly be seen in his portrayal of Hank. Little quirks and characterizations are so beautifully utilized that Hank becomes a real person, who directly transfers his feelings and experiences to each audience member. One sees his obvious pain, frustration, and distress.
Irene (Suzi Regan), who we find has a special kinship with both Tony and Hank, is a much more mysterious character. One soon learns that she is the wife of Peter (Paul Hopper), Hank”s German colleague. Although Regan did a fine acting job, her character was somewhat annoying. Although her personality is indeed mysterious, quiet, and content, her prosaic style and presence are irritating. Her words give clues as to the significance Hank”s visit, but the dynamics of her character are poorly integrated, resulting in a distraction rather than an enhancement.
“Rain Dance” is creatively written so as to keep the audience very attentive to each line spoken, for each explains or hints at something new. These lines play on broader themes: Desert, Native American culture, top-level research, World War II. When Peter mentions “Oppenheimer,” reality hits us in the face, leaving a cold and harsh sting. This is serious stuff we”re talking about here.
“Rain Dance” is indeed wonderfully constructed, but if you”re not a stickler for extreme ambiguity (some ambiguity is of course effective and necessary), the play will lose you. On the other hand, if you enjoy putting together bits and pieces to make your own assumptions, it could be enjoyable. So try it out.