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, while onlookers stare in slackjawed amazement. Water runs through and through “The Diviners,” sometimes still, sometimes a trickle, and sometimes a torrent.
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. He’s completely terrified by water, but intimately connected to it. 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 a hell-and-brimstone role 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 local diner is run by Goldie Short, a businesswoman preoccupied with money. Well, you get the picture.
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, using focused and finely honed acting, a few props, and the audience’s imagination to create magic. 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 hard 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 faith truly about public display and forbidding the actions of others under pain of eternal damnation? Or, is it about loving others and helping them, about easing their fears, and about the gifts that are received day to day? At the end, as one character says, we do not know when it will rain. We turn the earth and when it comes, we call it a blessing.
“The Diviners” is for those who plumb the depths under slow-moving currents, and this is one moving, fluid production that isn’t watered down.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS Radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.