The Rainmaker Even in her loose-fitting coveralls, minimal makeup and stringy ponytail, actress Sheri Lynn, who plays spinster-in-waiting Lizzie Curry in N. Richard Nash's 1954 pseudo-classic The Rainmaker, is hardly what you'd call "plain," as everyone constantly says. If she's an ugly duckling, what exactly do these dust-bowl ranchers consider handsome? This is but one of the problems that hobble the production running at Country Playhouse. Playwright Nash doesn't help matters -- his dialogue has no subtlety or subtext, and this homey, spun-cotton explicitness depletes whatever mischief exists in this tale. Wily con man Starbuck (Sedric J. Willis) wheedles money out of drought-stricken Depression families with false promises to bring rain. But like that other iconic Broadway confidence man, the Music Man, what he ultimately brings to his latest victims is self-awareness and beauty of soul. Once Lizzie believes she is beautiful -- after her hair is unpinned, of course -- she becomes so. Unfortunately, instead of running away with dreamy Starbuck, she remains on the hardscrabble farm to marry a local stick-of-wood deputy sheriff, and her happily-ever-after existence looks entirely bleak and rainless. Willis, as charismatic Starbuck, enters in flashy red shirt but forgets to bring the magic. Only Stephen Phillips, as Lizzie's brutally honest brother Noah, and Matt Tramel, as Lizzie's fun-loving, gullible brother Jim, inhabit their characters fully. Although it's supposed to be 110 degrees in the shade, there's not a drop of sweat evident; no one's wilted or even thirsty; and the men's work shirts are neat, pressed and dry. Inexplicably, the set is placed in front of a black backdrop that completely negates the relentless sun that's so integral to the play's atmosphere. The heat's been turned way down on this one. Through January 28. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.
A Tale of Two Cities Say you find a baby on your doorstep minutes before your "big moment" lip-synching the gay anthem "Gloria" at a club called Sally's. How do you entertain it? If you're drag queen Jerry (Kenn McLaughlin), you begin by telling it the story of Goldilocks. Jerry gets through two sentences before baby Dorian screams displeasure. "Rapunzel" fares no better, nor does Jerry's X-rated "Little Red Riding Hood." Exasperated, he begins the classic first lines from Dickens's great novel: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." Dorian purrs approval. So as he prepares his drag toilette, Jerry relates Dickens's tale to his new charge. In playwright Everett Quinton's one-man show, all the high points, grotesque characters and flowing language of Dickens are given a spin that would put a smile on Linda Blair. Using everyday objects found in his apartment (detailed with love by set designers Chris Rivera and Christie Guidry), Jerry's run through the novel's plot is like SparkNotes on meth: He uses his red stiletto heel as a knife to kill the evil Marquis Evrémonde, a bath towel as an overcoat, two plastic wastepaper baskets as Miss Lucy's panniers and a cereal box for a judge's headwear -- all while keeping Dickens's tale rushing inexorably toward its cathartic ending. McLaughlin, managing director of Stages Repertory Theatre, stepped into this demanding role two weeks before opening, and to his great credit and that of director Linus Craig, we'd never know it. He prances, flounces, emotes and dramatizes as any great drag queen would in these circumstances, bringing to life not only Jerry but all the 20-plus characters of Dickens's extraordinary novel. Although the ending is rushed and unsatisfactory (with all the self-sacrifice inherent in Dickens, you'd assume Jerry would adopt Dorian), the play -- and Jerry -- thoroughly enlighten us. Through January 29. Unhinged Productions at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.