Sheldon Vexler Theatre/The Diviners
Meditations on the water of life
February 11, 2016
“Amazing Grace,” sung in a
gossamer-light soprano, floats in the
darkness as spotlights move among
various townsfolk who tell about the
drowning death of a beloved teenage
boy. Thus begins playwright Jim
Leonard, Jr.'s affecting “The Diviners”
(1980), which is now on the boards at
the Sheldon Vexler Theatre.
Once the stage lights are up, events
leading to the drowning and funeral
are revealed in a series of vignettes
exploring the lives and times of the
residents of Zion, a parched
Depression-era town in southern
Indiana. It is a close-knit community
of God-fearing people who have not
lost their faith, but have lost their
The boy in question is 14 year-old Buddy Layman (gifted young newcomer Isaac Oulette), whose mother drowned trying to save him from a similar fate when he was four. He is slow of speech and comprehension, but very gentle unless he comes anywhere near water. Being wet sends him into shrieking convulsions, so he never bathes. He also has the paradoxical ability of predicting rain and finding water deep underground, that is, dousing or divining. In the best spirit of “it takes a village,” he is loved
and appreciated by everyone.
The 17 year-old home-schooled Oulette resisted overacting in a role that was bursting with temptations to go over the top. He deserves praise for creating a believable, endearingly odd character.
The plot – which is more a portrait of a time and a community than a story – revolves around the boy and C.C. Showers (portrayed with plausible sensitivity by Travis Simpson), a handsome drifter who came to town in search of work and ended up repairing machinery for Buddy’s father, Ferris (Robert Moritz). Deeply disillusioned, he had been a preacher for 12 years, but because he no longer found meaning in “talk and more talk,” he simply walked away and roamed the countryside in search of a raison d’être.
The two begin to bond as C.C. teaches the boy about such things as nature and the flight of birds, prompting Buddy to want to fly to Heaven so that he can see his mother. Observing the boy's reactions and emotional growth seems to help C.C. in his own quest, although – in response to those entreating him to return to the pulpit – he is adamant in his refusal to do so.
Along the way to the inevitable finale, we meet Buddy’s teenage sister JennieMae (saucy Alexandra Eckelbarger), who is attracted to C.C. until the 30 year-old gently sets her straight.
There is Bible-thumping, hymn-singing shopkeeper Norma (Laurie Fitzpatrick), who is convinced that C.C. will go back to the church, and there is her daughter Darlene (Erin Polewski) who dares to go (shudder) dancing with her earnest, bumbling boyfriend, Dewey (Chris Byrnes).
The men cuss President Hoover and compare notes on farming techniques or machinery, while the women gossip or hopefuly speculate on C.C.'s becoming their preacher after all.
The kindly farmer and self-appointed doctor, Basil (Barry Goettl), insists that the only cure for Buddy's terrible case of ringworm is a cold-water bath. Buddy had predicted a huge rainstorm, but C.C. is intent on curing the boy, takes him down to the river and after much chasing and coaxing, finally persuades him to go into the water. A throng of hymn-singing townspeople had gathered at that point to witness what they believe would be a religious ceremony.
As expected, the final scene chillingly mixes bathing and baptism. And, thanks to the expertise and vision of co-directors Dylan Brainard and Tami Kai, it is one of the most compelling, perfectly choreographed onstage action scenes in this observer’s recent memory. When the boy and C.C. are “underwater,” there are wavy watery projections on a floor to ceiling backdrop, while the people on the riverbank pantomime their desperate movements and cries. Each time C.C. surfaces, unable to find Buddy, we hear them loudly screaming before he plunges back and the silence promptly returns.
Staging was adept and efficient throughout, with virtually no pauses between scenes. Set and light designer Ken Frazier created pools of light that shifted about to reveal a diner, a gift shop, a river bank, a garage exterior or a front porch, all taking place on a series of wooden platforms strewn with baskets or crates and minimal furniture. Actors slowly made their way to position in semi-darkness, then quickly hit their marks to begin the new scene.
The uniformly strong ensemble was rounded out by Timothy McCain as Melvin, a farm hand and good-ol’-boy war vet , and Kelli Grant as one of JennieMae's giggling teen girlfriends. Naomi Phillips was a graceful presence as the spirit of Sara Layman, who sang hymns in a smoky, ethereal voice.
The play is haunting but it is also strangely uplifting, even spiritual.
The Diviners runs through February 28 at the Sheldon Vexler Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. Call 302-6835.
14-year-old Buddy (Isaac Oulette), terrified of water, with sister JennieMae (Alexandra Eckelbarger) and drifter C.C. Showers (Travis Simpson).