'Rain Dance' dramatizes an atomic moment

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  June 23, 2003 at 7:00 AM
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NEW YORK, June 23 (UPI) -- Lanford Wilson's 17 full-length plays and 30 short plays have held a mirror up to the American scene in the last half of the 20th century that now reflects the eve of the first atomic bomb test in 1945 by way of a poignant new drama, "Rain Dance."

The tense, economically written play is being given its New York premiere by the Signature Theater Company at its Off-Broadway Peter Norton Space as the conclusion of a season-long salute to Wilson, one of America's most eminent playwrights. The setting is a cantina at the Manhattan Project's base in Los Alamos, N.M., and the cast includes a German emigre physicist and his wife, a young American scientist, and an American Indian soldier who is assigned to the base.

The four are friends, and in the case of the physicist's wife and the soldier they are lovers. They seem to have taken refuge in the cantina to get away from a gathering thunderstorm and a party under way nearby that is celebrating a historic event, the birth of a weapon whose importance to mankind they can only imagine with differing degrees of alarm.

Hank, the boyish 27-year-old scientists, has the worst jitters and resorts to nervous conversation to hide them. Tony, the soldier, is the most laid back and given to long silences. Peter, the physicist, is being philosophical, and his younger artist wife, Irene, is deeply concerned about whether she will be wrenched from the beautiful New Mexico desert she has come to love now that the Manhattan Project has achieved its goal.

They do their best to skirt the main issue on their minds – the atomic bomb and its almost inestimable destructive power whose consequences are too awesome to put into words. But Hank, in particular, is obsessively drawn to this issue despite his enthusiasm for his job and the scientific breakthrough in which he has played a part, and he is the most articulate in voicing his ambivalent concerns.

Thus it is Hank who tends to dominate the play and provide it with the almost unbearable tension that makes "Rain Dance" work as a drama. James Van Der Beek, star of TV's "Dawson's Creek," plays the role with an innocent earnestness that is most endearing, especially when he allows his crush on Irene to surface and when he joins Tony in a rain dance that was a part of a touring Indian show in which the soldier once performed.

Harris Yulin, fine actor that he is, makes Peter more interesting than perhaps the playwright even intended, creating the portrait of a man who seems resigned to whatever the outcome of the bomb test may be, having given his best to the project. He is weary and needs a rest. There are indications that he even winks at his wife's affair with the soldier since it fulfills needs he can no longer satisfy.

Suzanne Regan is luminous and sympathetic as Irene, whose artistic temperament has been sorely strained by being uprooted from her native cultural setting and set down in a strange foreign landscape. Fortunately she has been able to find friendship and inspiration in the Indian community to offset her feelings of displacement, but now she faces the loss of even this consolation if her husband moves on to another project.

Wilson has not given the role of Tony much delineation, but Randolph Mantooth makes the most of this enigmatic Indian whose calm is a reality rather than an assumed cover for fear and anger, as it is for the others. Tony is more of a listener than a talker, but the expression on Mantooth's face as he listens is revelatory and worth watching.

"Rain Dance" has been expertly directed by Guy Sanville, artistic director of the Purple Rose Theater Company in Chelsea, Mich., where the play was premiered last year. Christine Jones' simple, shack-like set is detailed and realistic and it is nicely lit by James Vermeulen to suggest dusk and an increasingly stormy night. Daryl A. Stone's costumes are appropriate to the time and place.

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