KPBS Airdate: October 28, 1998
When first we behold poor, brain-damaged Buddy Layman, his eyes are rolled back in his head, and he’s stumbling around the stage with a forked stick, divining water. He has a mysterious connection to water and yet he’s terrified of it. Water runs all through “The Diviners,” sometimes still, sometimes a trickle, and sometimes a torrent.
Playwright James Leonard, Jr. has woven faith, small-town relationships, and love of the land into a wonderful tale, set during the Great Depression in the tiny hamlet of Zion, Indiana. Work is scarce, times are tough, and the town has been without a spiritual leader for years. In walks a disenchanted preacher, C. C. Showers, seeking work and a place to stay. Young Buddy intrigues and mystifies him, and they become fast friends. Buddy’s miraculous ability to divine water and predict rain comes from an early aqueous trauma. C.C. helps him with his fear and Buddy helps C.C. regain his faith, if not his desire to preach, by showing him the small miracles in everyday life. Meanwhile, the townspeople, desperate for a new minister, try to force C.C. back into the hellfire-and-brimstone he left behind, as the drama builds to a predictable, but powerful climax.
Written almost as a passion play, “The Diviners” features characters whose names indicate their inclination: Buddy needs a friend, his father Ferris works with iron and is obsessed with machines, a local naif is Dewey and his experienced friend is Wilder, the diner is run by Goldie Short, a businesswoman preoccupied with money. Well, you get the picture.
In a Lamb’s Players reprise, director Robert Smyth has delivered a simple, nuanced, and frankly beautiful production. The set is spare, and clever use is made of lighting and sound to evoke clear summer days or pounding rainstorms. This is theater as it is meant to be, making magic with just a few props, focused and finely honed acting, and the audience’s imagination. Several of the watery stage pictures are breathtaking, thanks to design work by Mike Buckley and terrific lighting by David Thayer.
As Buddy, Nick Cordileone is marvelous, in a powerful portrayal of a simpleton who is wisely attuned to the land and its wonders. David Cochran Heath, as C.C. Showers, gives a controlled, multi-faceted performance as a man, beaten down by life and self-doubt, who struggles to regain his connection to other people and to his faith. Tom Stephenson, as Ferris, is a true exemplar of the virtues of hard work and Mid-Western values, sometimes funny and sometimes tough as nails. Susan Clausen does her best work as Buddy’s sister Jennie Mae, credibly tremulous and saucy as a young girl searching for her first love. The rest of the cast provides solid support.
True to their mission, the Lambs Players have produced another fine play that is, at its core, about the meaning of faith. Is it really only about prohibitions and restrictions, with the threat of eternal damnation? Or, is it about loving others and helping them, about easing their fears, and appreciating the gifts that are received day to day? In the end, we don’t know when it will rain. But as one character puts it, “When it comes, we turn to each other and call it a blessing.”
“The Diviners” is for those who’re happy just to float on the surface, or for those who like to plumb the depths beneath a rushing current. It’s one moving, fluid production.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.