It takes guts for a Christian-based theater company to take on a play as dark and as ultimately devastating as Jim Leonard, Jr.’s The Diviners. Then again Actors Co-op isn’t your Garden-Of Eden-Variety Christian-based theater company, and with a mostly God-fearing cast of characters plus a charismatic preacher man in crisis-of-faith mode, The Diviners fits quite neatly into the Co-op’s “The Story Is The Journey” 23rd season.
Playwright Leonard cues us in from the get-go not to go expecting a happy ending, the play’s prologue already presaging 17-year-old Buddy Layman’s fate. “He’s dead now for certain. He’s passed on beyond us,” reveals one of the characters. “The idiot boy is dead. Buddy Layman’s gone,” adds another.
The rest of The Diviners’ two acts introduce us to Buddy (Michael Beck) and assorted 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 (Clay Bunker), 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 left up to us to wonder.
Playwright Leonard wrote The Diviners in 1980 when he was in his mid-twenties, and as the Co-op revival 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 a compelling storyline.
Act One introduces us to the play’s large cast 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 incredible Act One finale, one that leaves us short of breath for its power and beauty.
The first time I saw The Diviners a few years back, I committed the sin of anticipating what the playwright had in store for me in Act Two, and feeling disappointed if not downright deceived when he didn’t give me the second act I was expecting.
Perhaps, I was hoping for a feel-good ending despite the tragedy foretold in the play’s prologue, wishing for a miracle, or at the very least waiting to see the “transformative” effect Buddy’s death would have on the townspeople.
What Leonard actually gives us is considerably more cryptic, and a good deal more likely to spark discussion once the lights have gone down on its final tableau. In other words, this is powerful, daring stuff that could easily provoke in Co-op subscribers my initial reaction, which may well be what its playwright intended.
Under Mark Henderson’s astute direction, co-op newcomer Beck reprises the role he first played at Pierce College a few years back, vanishing to heartbreaking effect inside the deeply troubled youth’s unwashed skin, emotional scars caused by the drowning death of his mother running deep.
Co-op regular David Atkinson is once again terrific as Ferris, Buddy’s salt-of-the-earth farmer father, a man bruised but not broken by life’s tragedies, a dad doing the best he can despite considerable odds. A radiant Ivy Beech makes a memorable Co-op debut as Buddy’s spunky 16-year-old sister Jennie Mae, while Nathan Lee Burkart and John McKetta couldn’t be more charming as frisky farmhands Dewey and Melvin. Co-op vet Tim Farmer is his folksy best as Basil, the farmer who employs Melvin and Dewey, and a droll Maria Cominis delights as Basil’s nagging wife Luella, not nearly so willing as the others to accept C.C. in their midst. Maurie Speed makes for a frisky Darlene, Tracy Lynn Bunka amuses with donuts and jelly beans as Goldie, and Co-op treasure Deborah Marlowe once again commands the stage as Norma, café owner, true believer, and a woman who won’t take no as an answer.
Best of all is Bunker’s revelatory turn as as C.C., a man battling demons we are left to divine on our own, his very enigmas making him even more an object of fascination and desire amongst the townsfolk. Effortlessly charismatic and with acting chops to match, Bunker is a star in the making and an inspired casting choice.
Scenic/property designers Henderson and Farmer play with perspective in a gorgeous set suggesting the expanse of the Indiana plains, a design that makes the David Schall Theatre seem twice as deep as is probably is. Shon LeBlanc’s early 1930s costumes transport us back to the Great Depression Midwest every bit as splendidly as so the SETS TO GO duo’s set and props. Kris Fehervari’s hair and makeup design suggests if not quite replicates Herbert Hoover-era time frame. Dialect coach Jill Massie insures accurate Hoosier vowels and C.C.’s much thicker Kentucky drawl.
Still the undisputed design stars this time round are Bill E. Kickbush’s gorgeous lighting and David B. Marling’s equally exquisite sound design, the duo making us believe that there is water where there is in fact none, whether in the bucket that so terrifies Buddy, or the rain that pours buckets amidst peals of thunder, or the river that provides the setting for The Diviner’s sensationally staged and gut-wrenchingly potent penultimate scene.
The Diviners is produced by Rhonda Kohl. Theresa Corvino is stage manager.
If Jim Leonard, Jr.’s The Diviners had me scratching my head the first time round, and even this revisit still has me wondering exactly what the playwright’s message is, this second staging has transformed me into a much greater fan of this powerful piece of theater made even more powerful by the talents of one of L.A.’s most gifted company of artists.
Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.
October 25, 2015
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly