On making The Rainmaker


You may think that all this rain we’re having is caused by a drop in barometric pressure. But are you aware that Tanna Frederick, Robert Standley and their director Jack Heller are in heavy-duty rehearsals for N. Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker, which opens this week at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica? Apparently, whatever they’re doing to make rain, it’s working.

The three play mates recently paused to talk about their production.

Standley, who plays Starbuck, the rainmaker, begins by noting that this version has changed him, as did acting with Frederick under Heller’s guidance. “Lizzie [the role played by Frederick] is resigned to what life offers,” he says, “but Starbuck opens her up. She finds out who she really is. Then, in turn, she opens him up. And Jack, who is from the Actors Studio, will not allow us to have a false emotion.”

Lizzie is a spinster who helps with the family farm. She’s initially skeptical of Starbuck’s claims but then becomes captivated by the dreams and promises that he offers. “I have to continually assess where, when, and how Lizzie would do things. She still can dream, but it’s a question of discriminating between dream and delusion,” Frederick says.

Frederick was born and raised in Iowa, and “my family’s stock was always Midwestern practicality: safety vs adventure.” That might sound similar to Lizzie’s background, but “Lizzie is a very different character from me,” Frederick notes. Lizzie certainly wasn’t someone who would become a stage and film actress in Santa Monica.

Heller, whose long career spans acting as well as directing, played Lizzie’s younger brother, Jimmy, in an earlier production of the play. “I would do it 50 more times if I could,” he says.

“This play feels very real,” he continues. “It has a certain grittiness, like [the Elia Kazan-directed movies] Baby Doll and On the Waterfront.”

“This is as close as I will ever get to working with Kazan,” Frederick interjects.

“It all starts and ends with the actor,” Heller says. “If you don’t have actors doing their job you don’t have a show. Kazan let the actors soar.”

As for his own directing proclivities, he says, “I look for the comedy in the drama and the drama in the comedy…And for simplicity. Just ‘being’ instead of acting,” he adds.

“Jack has you hold things inside,” Frederick explains. “While Henry [her friend and mentor, writer/director Henry Jaglom] demands neuroses, Jack wants internal neuroses that build the character. He sees his job as containing and calming things down, and the energy just comes out for what you need.

“It’s like training for a marathon,” she adds. “You need to find the perfect pace that will get you to Boston.”

Frederick actually runs marathons. In addition, she is an active surfer and a co-founder of Project SOS—Save Our Surf, a non-profit charity that focuses on oceanic conservation activities and young people.

“We have 250 acres in Irvine, and this year we sent 1000 kids to camp,” she says proudly. “Many of them had never seen the ocean,” she notes, and they had never had a camping experience. The programs are all outdoors and many of them deal with awareness of and caring for the ocean. “We will be going to Hawaii soon to work with players from the NFL to clean up the beach.”

In addition, the organization runs Wahini, a leadership day camp for women that teaches them, among other things, to surf, to work on art projects, and to work toward personal empowerment. And Save Our Surf has installed wells in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and South Africa.

Frederick recently completed a long run at the Edgemar as a dog named Sylvia and another as the lead in Jaglom’s play Just 45 Minutes from Broadway. The latter was made into a movie, in which Heller and Frederick play father and daughter. It’s currently playing in Beverly Hills.

Other films in which Frederick starred include Hollywood Dreams, Irene in Time, and Queen of the Lot, and in 2009 she won the Maverick Award from the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival and the Performer to Watch award from Method Fest.

Heller has directed more than 60 plays in the US and Canada and served as the artistic director for the Laurelgrove Theater Company. He recently played Tennessee Williams in Tennessee in the Summer, and he also directed and acted in The Lost Plays of Tennessee Williams, for which he won LA Weekly Theater Awards for one-act performance and one-act ensemble. A student of Harold Clurman and Robert Lewis of the Group Theater, he is a lifetime member of Actors Studio’s directing and acting units. He has taught at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and spent several years teaching theater techniques to addicts at a halfway house, Beit T’Shuvah, to aid in their recovery.

Heller sees The Rainmaker as a “romantic comedy.” It takes place in the 1930s, in Depression-era America, when prolonged drought and sandstorms in the West were threatening to turn the area into what it later became, a Dust Bowl. Into this catastrophic situation comes a wandering con man, Starbuck, who guarantees to produce rain for a $100 fee.

Lizzie and her older brother Noah are realists. Lizzie sees Starbuck as a charlatan and even derides his “made up” name. In response, Starbuck tells her “The name you choose for yourself is more yours than the one you’re born with.”

“Lizzie is true to herself,” Heller says, “and many women are offended by that. She deals with reality and practicality as opposed to dreams and hopes, and sometimes those alternatives represent completely different worlds.”

“Jack is a master in the art of doing nothing,” Frederick says. “This play gives me a serendipitous opportunity to work with him, although that scares the shit out of me.”

Eventually, Lizzie must make an important decision, and Standley tells, with a laugh, of a previous production in which an 85-year-old woman in the audience apparently disagreed with Lizzie’s choice. “I would go with Starbuck!” she shouted, “and enjoy it for however long it lasted!”

The Rainmaker, Edgemar Center for the Arts, Main Stage, 2437 Main Street, Santa Monica 90405. Thu-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 5 pm, through March 24. Tickets: $25-$34.99. www.edgemarcenter.org. 310-392-7327.


Photo: Robert Standley, Tanna Frederick, and Jack Heller
by Cynthia Citron

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