THE DIVINERS: by Jim Leonard, Jr.
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: CAT (Chamberlayne Actors Theatre), 319 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227
Performances: February 2-17, 2018
Ticket Prices: Tickets $13, $18, $23
Info: (804) 262-9760 or cattheatre.com
For the first time in all the years I’ve gone to CAT, the space was totally reconfigured. Director Zachary Owen reversed the positions of the audience and the stage to build a raked thrust platform with the audience seated intimately on three sides of the stage for the current production of Jim Leonard, Jr.’s depression-era drama, The Diviners.
Set in the tiny fictitious town of Zion, Indiana, the story revolves around Buddy Layman, a fourteen-year-old boy with developmental challenges and a paralyzing fear of water. It appears that he has not taken a bath since his mother died – and we never find out exactly how long ago that was but suffice it to say that it’s been long enough that Buddy is encrusted with dirt and infected with ringworms to the point that he can no longer sleep. Stone Casey, a high school freshman, handles this role with the confidence of a seasoned professional. (He has been performing in school for five years, and apparently, he’s been paying attention.) Casey may be on his way to finding his purpose in life; the role of Buddy is emotional and nuanced, and he navigated it like a true professional.
Buddy is, nonetheless, a charismatic child, prone to speaking of himself in the third person, and gifted with the ability to find well or to divine water. In fact, the first act finds him searching for a new well for local farmer Basil Bennett (Charles A. Wax) who also doubles as the town doctor, albeit without benefit of medical school – which was not uncommon in bygone decades. Basil’s wife, Luella (Sandra Clayton) is skeptical of Buddy’s divining abilities and urges her husband to hire some contractors with well-digging machinery.
The town is so small they have been without a church or a preacher since their one church burned down, but the local dry-goods proprietor, Norma Henshaw (Crystal Oakley) has stepped up to the plate. Toting her bible and singing hymns, she is determined to pray up a preacher. Her skills may be at least partially commended, as the town is soon visited by one C.C. Showers (Arik Cullen), a preacher in the flesh. The only problem is that the tall, handsome, well-spoken C.C. has given up preaching. He is so adamant about this that when the local diner owner, Goldie Short (Ann Davis) asks his to pray a blessing over a donut he rudely refuses.
Baggage or no – and there’s a who ‘nother story about his luggage – a single man and a preacher are hot commodities in a small town like Zion and catches the attention of several women and girls – including pretty teen, Jennie Mae Layman (Rachel Mae Dilliplane). Unfortunately, Jennie Mae is not only the sister of young Buddy, but also the daughter of C.C.’s new landlord and employer, Ferris Layman (Cary Nothnagel), who is the local mechanic.
I found out from the program that The Diviners is Nothnagel’s favorite play – one he teaches every spring to his high school students. He performed the role of C.C. as a high school student himself (a historical fact that was not lost on one audience member who recognized him from that earlier production). When Nothnagel heard that CAT was producing The Diviners, he made sure he would be included in the cast.
It would not be a spoiler to tell you that Buddy has died when the play starts, and the body of the production is his story neatly bookended by his family and friends telling of his recent death. The 11-member cast, which also includes Annie McElroy as Norma’s niece Darlene, and Chris Craig and Patrick Siegmund as local yokels Melvin Wilder and Dewey Maples, works seamlessly together and in close proximity to the audience – sometimes resulting in awkward angles with their backs to a one section or the other, but they were always audible.
Wilder and Maples added some necessary humor throughout, as the clueless Melvin instructed the naïve Dewey in the ways of the world – chiefly in how to get a date with the dangerously lovely and bored Darlene.
An Acts of Faith festival entry, The Diviners deals with C.C.’s crisis of faith as well as Norma’s fanaticism. The combination of the two leads to misunderstanding and propel the ultimate tragedy at the end. But other characters have issues of faith as well. Ferris has been lost since his wife died and has left his children to fend for themselves like feral cats. C.C.’s unexpected friendship is a godsend for the Layman family (no pun intended). Goldie is waiting for a revival of faith to bring a revival of business to her diner; her best business was on Sundays when church-goers traditionally go out for brunch or dinner. Buddy’s problems stem as much from any congenital challenges he may have had as from his mother’s death and his subsequent inability to comprehend where she has gone. We, the audience, are left with a bunch of questions at the end of Act One. Why is Buddy so afraid of water? What happened to his mother? What is C.C. running away from—and what is his full name, anyway? Two of these three questions are answered in Act Two.
Playwright Leonard’s choice of character names is also interesting. Layman, for instance, is another word for nonordained church workers. C.C.’s last name is Showers, and rain is a recurring theme; in fact, it seems that is has not rained in a very long time until he shows up. In the Urban Dictionary¸ Henshaw is defined as a substitute for a common expletive, or a vulgar term for female genitals.
The Diviners is a thought provoking play; not one you would say you enjoyed as much as it is one that draws you in and that will linger with you afterwards. Director Owen has done a masterful job pulling his audience in. Sheila Russ’s costumes are a little corny; Jennie Mae and Dewey wear overalls, and Darlene wears stereotypically shapeless dresses. Bill Miller’s lighting design is quite effective, especially during the tragic accident scene, and Nicholas Ray Creery does a good job with the sound design, which includes rain and a storm. Zachary Owen and Ellie Wilder designed the simple, somewhat dreary, but functional set, consisting of a couple of boxes and some brown mottled flooring. It is, after all, the 1930s, and we, the audience, are experts as suspending belief.
Take note that the title is “diviners,” plural. Yes, Buddy is a diviner in the sense of one who finds water, but the other characters – and even the audience – are diviners in the sense of foretelling or prophesying what is to come.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.