Don’t go expecting a happy ending in Jim Leonard, Jr.’s The Diviners. The play’s prologue reveals Buddy Layman’s fate from the get-go. “He’s dead now for certain. He’s passed on beyond us. The idiot boy is dead. Buddy Layman’s gone.”
The rest of The Diviners’ two acts introduce us to Buddy and the other residents of the mythical southern Indiana town of Zion, smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression in the dust bowl they call home.
Water is scarce in Zion, and so it’s young Buddy whom its residents have come to count on as a diviner, someone with the seemingly miraculous ability to find water in whatever underground spot it may be hidden. We first see Buddy barefoot and filthy, his eyes shut tight, his divining rod leading him towards the precious liquid so lacking in this drought-ridden community.
Buddy is the victim of a tragic accident which has left him mentally impaired and deathly afraid of the very substance he’s able to divine. Hence the filth. Hence the ringworm which has infested his skin.
The Diviners is Buddy’s story, the story of the townsfolk around him, and the story of a new man in town, C.C. Showers, an ex-preacher in search of work that doesn’t involve spreading The Word. Just why C.C. gave up on God is never explained. It’s up to us to wonder.
Playwright Leonard wrote The Diviners in 1980 when he was in his mid-twenties, and as the current production by North Hollywood’s The Production Company proves, the young writer (who has gone on to a successful career as a playwright and TV writer/producer) has a talent for creating real people in an often compelling storyline. In fact, the first act of The Diviners is so good, so real, and so unique in its depiction of a time and place that it ends up a letdown when its second act leaves you scratching your head and wondering what it all meant.
Act One introduces us to the play’s large cast of characters in a series of short scenes which meld seamlessly one into the next. Buddy quizzes C.C. about heaven. Buddy’s mechanic father Ferris discusses politics and the importance of chewing tobacco with C.C. before hiring him to work on his farm. A pair of local women bemoan the sorry state of a town without a preacher these past ten years. The owner of the Dine-Away-Café insists that C.C. say grace before she’ll let any donuts be eaten in her establishment. C.C. tells Buddy’s teenage sister Jennie Mae about his upbringing in the church. Two young farmhands flirt with Jennie Mae. A farmer tells Ferris about his aversion to tractors, then the mechanic gives him advice on how to keep air in a bicycle tire. Buddy wins a huge jar of jelly beans from the café owner for guessing the exact number of beans inside.
Then comes the incredibly powerful Act One finale, the one depicted in the production poster, Buddy standing in a tub of water finally allowing his feet and legs to be washed, the only way to cure him of potentially fatal ringworm. As staged by T.L. Kolman and lit by Ric Zimmerman, the scene, and final image the audience is left with, leave us short of breath for their power and beauty.
We return from intermission expecting to see how this change in Buddy will affect him and the townspeople. We especially want to see its effect on C.C.
What we get is more “slice of life” moments. Buddy’s fear of water seems undiminished. And always, there is the tragedy foretold in the play’s prologue, just waiting to happen.
I can’t help wondering how much more powerful The Diviners would be if we ended up seeing how Buddy’s life (and death) transformed his father, his sister, the townsfolk of Zion, and C.C., particularly the latter for reasons that can’t be revealed here.
Still, there are ample reasons to see this well acted, beautifully designed, and sensitively and skillfully directed production, the greatest of which is Rob Herring’s absolutely stunning work as Buddy. The young actor, memorable as Tobias in last year’s Sweeney Todd, disappears completely into the tragic youth’s unwashed skin, revealing a boy-man with a soul of gold, emotionally scarred by the drowning death of his mother. Speaking in an odd, third-person style, Herring’s Buddy wins our hearts from the get-go, even as we anticipate (and fear) the demise foretold in the opening “First Elegy.” This is a tough role to nail, and Herring nails it to perfection.
Nathan Graham Smith makes an impressive Los Angeles theater debut as C.C., a fellow so genial and good-of-heart that his decision to give up preaching proves as much a mystery to the audience as it does to the residents of Zion. Reed Armstrong too does memorable work as Ferris, Buddy’s farmer father, a man aged beyond his still young years by hard work, tragedy, and drought, but one whose love for his teenage children is never in doubt. The lovely Lauren Schneider shines as Buddy’s spunky 16-year-old sister, and Chris Blim and Reed Windle are delightful as Melvin and Dewey, a pair of frisky teenage farmhands. Alex Egan makes for a decidedly quirky Basil, the farmer who employs Melvin and Dewey, and Ferrell Marshall does good work as Basil’s wife Luella, not nearly so willing as the others to accept C.C. in their midst. Completing the cast is the wonderful Jennifer Lynn Davis (of Secrets Of A Soccer Mom) as Norma, café owner, true believer, and a woman who won’t take no as an answer.
Viverito’s set design follows Leonard’s instructions that the action take place on a single set without tables or chairs, one that will serve as both outdoor and indoor locations, the audience’s imagination filling in missing walls or furniture. This simple but quite gorgeous set suggests Indiana plains, with real tall grass appearing to grow from the walls on either side. Zimmerman’s lighting aids greatly in suggesting where each scene takes place, and there is a particularly striking water effect for the play’s climactic moments. Viverito’s sound design is his usual assured work. Uncredited costumes seem just right for the era, though women’s hairstyles are entirely 2010. David Robert May serves as production stage manager.
Act One had me loving The Diviners, Act Two had me still liking it, but wishing the first act’s promise had been fulfilled. Maybe Leonard had a message that just went over my head. In any case, The ProdCo production is worth seeing for Herring’s devastating work, its solid supporting performances, and for the glimpse back in time that it offers. One thing is sure. This play heralded great things ahead for a young playwright with a unique voice.
The Production Company, Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood.
March 6, 2010