Wilson, Lanford. The Purple Rose Theatre Company, Purple Rose Theatre, Chelsea, Michigan. 3 March 2001.
Lanford Wilson's newest play, Rain Dance, focuses on the testing of the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Set in a cantina during the year 1945, the script guides the audience through the dramatic histories of a young American scientist, a Native-American military police officer, and two German immigrants, all of whom congregate in the small bar, each having contributed in some way to the development of the bomb. As a result, the expected repercussions of their work weigh heavily on the characters' consciences. Not only have they assisted in the creation of a weapon with massive fatal implications, but they also come to realize that the testing of the bomb will destroy the already dwindling Native-American culture of Los Alamos. Ultimately, the play is a story about the ramifications of careless cultural exploitation and destruction.
The storyline is sufficiently aided by the setting and technical effects in Rain Dance, all of which contribute to the varying cultural references in the play. However, the most memorable aspects of the production are found in Wilson's culturally rich and complex characters that the actors at The Purple Rose portray with varying degrees of success.
Both vocally and physically Matt Letscher proves convincing as Hank, the nervous, 27 year old, Anglo scientist from New York. Letscher has chosen to capture Hank's guilt and intense yearning for acceptance through frequent "explosions" of unbridled energy and frustration that are, at times, extremely unsettling to the audience. Letscher does much to aid the often-erratic pace of the production by incorporating a larger variety of emotional levels into his character portrayal. His character is constantly talking, ultimately dominating the majority of the conversations, which parallels the script's blatant condemnation of uninvited cultural domination by Anglo-Americans. Letscher's choices have a strong affect on the fluidity of the production, which are otherwise lacking at times.
Further problems in the fluidity of the production may be attributed to Billy Merasty's portrayal of Tony, a Native-American military police officer. Through Merasty's performance, the audience realizes the significance of the play's title. After approximately forty minutes of near silence on his behalf, Merasty unexpectedly relays the story of his character's youthful "rain dance" performances in Europe with little motivation. As he demonstrates the "rain dance," a storm begins to develop outside the walls of the cantina that seems to parallel the "storm" of anxiety the characters are facing inside themselves. The playwright borders on a stereotypical portrayal of a Native-American man during the first half of the play, as the character of Tony makes solemn, one-word contributions to the conversations. Nevertheless, Merasty's portrayal of Tony is strongest during his silence. His focus is consistent until the unmotivated performance of the "rain dance." Further complicating matters are his verbal choices, as his diction becomes almost unrecognizable at times. However, his tender care for the character of Irene is believable and lovingly portrayed as their interracial relationship is disclosed.
In her noteworthy portrayal of Irene, Suzi Regan employs a faint smile and distant look in her eyes that give remarkable insight into the character of the young, German immigrant. Regan's heartbreaking depiction of a woman who has now come to peace only because she has no more strength to fight, demands consistent attention and admiration. In a touching scene when she admits that she has had a nervous breakdown, Regan's comfortable manner is seemingly contradictory to her confession. Incorporating a meticulous German accent, Regan's voice is eerily calm and steady, relaying the emptiness her character feels as a result of past experiences in Nazi Germany. Further, her character's acceptance of her husband's vaguely implied homosexuality would easily allow for an additional cultural exploration in Rain Dance.
Unfortunately, Paul Hopper's portrayal of Irene's husband, Peter, is the least memorable of the production. Hopper naturally embodies the character of an older, German scientist with grace and ease. Yet, his German accent seems to fluctuate, becoming dangerously close to British at times. His character has little to do with the action of the play. Still, there are moments when Hopper's stoic portrayal of Peter brings a necessary calm to the environment of the old cantina, which allows the remainder of the cast to advance the plot.
In sum, I would appreciate seeing further development, as I found the cultural relationships and character portrayals in Rain Dance to be the most intriguing elements of The Purple Rose Theatre Company's world premiere production. While the actors face specific pacing challenges, Guy Sanville has nevertheless directed a compellingly dramatic production that is peppered with truthful moments of wit and humor by the actors. The production is an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating theatrical experience that provides a substantial contribution to the regional theatre circuit.
Carrie Kathryn Lee