Channeling the Man in Black

Appears in the October 2023 issue.

By Mike Thomas

Ron E. Rains steps into Drury Lane Theatre’s Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash

Ron E. Rains in Drury Lane Theatre’s ‘Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash’

Since moving to the Chicago area in 1998, Ron E. Rains has been a fixture on local stages, including those of Drury Lane, TimeLine, and the Goodman, where for 11 seasons he portrayed Bob Cratchit in the theater’s popular annual production of A Christmas Carol. In early 2024 he’ll reprise the role of Jackie Elliot in Paramount Theatre’s Billy Elliot (he last played the part in Drury’s 2015 production). Rains also has popped up in Chicago Justice and Chicago Med, among other TV shows. Or perhaps you’ve watched his comedic alter ego, Peter K. Rosenthal, “review” films for the Onion.

The point is, Rains is a veteran and a pro, and that’s no doubt a big reason why the folks behind Drury’s production of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash tapped him to fill the lead role when Lance Guest had to drop out only a few weeks shy of opening night. Shortly before his first-ever appearance as the Man in Black, Rains answered some of our burning questions.


“I’ve been singing since I was a kid in church. My first musical, in fact, was at church in the titular role of Sam, about the Good Samaritan. Mom made me take piano lessons by the time I was 7, though I was a real slacker at it, and I had older siblings who constantly had music on, so music has always been part of my life.

Singing has always been the easy part of being in musicals or plays with music. Often over the years, I’ve been cast to play instruments in shows, including my first couple years playing guitar as Bob around the Cratchit family table, playing the saw and mandolin in The Matchmaker, understudying Chico Marx at the piano for Animal Crackers, the mandolin in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, playing Tom Waits’s music again on the mandolin as Stephano in The Tempest. Those productions called for an actor who could play an instrument. But my most recent experience in Writers Theatre’s Once was a real change for me, in that it called for a musician-actor. I had a bit of impostor syndrome going into that production, but by the end of the run, and with the help of music director Matt Deitchman, I felt I could call myself a musician-actor. Note that in none of those shows did I play a guitar. So Ring of Fire is a departure and, honestly, it’s proving to be the most challenging work I’ve ever done in the theater, especially considering the very short rehearsal period.”


“I’m a pretty decent mimic, but [codirector] Scott Weinstein has been adamant that I not try so hard to sound like Cash but rather to embody the spirit of the man and his music. Hopefully, I can pull it off. His lyrics are so heartfelt, it’s easy to find the truth in them. As long as I am truthful, hopefully I won’t come off as a caricature.”


“I was just talking to my wife about this. He certainly wasn’t a perfect person, as none of us can be. But he fully admitted his issues and they were on full display. He had to make several comebacks afer his downfalls. But he always stood for the poor and the beaten down. In his song “Man in Black,” he lists all the people he stood up for. Underdogs and underloved and underserved. He was a hero and sometimes an antihero. Long before Taylor Swift.”


“It’s always about truth in the moment. I find comedy easy because my mom instilled in me a sense of humor that’s helpful in so many dreadful situations. I don’t know how much humor will come through in Ring of Fire—I never know in any show until there’s an audience—but I suspect there will be moments that may be humorous. So that’s a tough question. I will note that dramatic roles are tougher for me, but they are more rewarding, partly because I’m not often cast to fill them.”


Photo: Brett Beiner Photography (Ring of Fire)