Small-Town Tension Soaks The Diviners

Small-Town Tension Soaks The Diviners
The Diviners
7:30pm Thu, 8pm Sat, 2:30pm Sun
The Sheldon Vexler Theatre
Barshop Jewish Community Center
12500 NW Military Hwy.
(210) 302-6835
Through Feb. 28

The Diviners begins as it ends — with an account of a fatal drowning. The play's circular structure suggests both a sad inevitability and a tragic dignity to events in a tiny town in southern Indiana during the Depression. We thus learn from the outset that Buddy Layman, a 14-year-old who survived drowning at age 3, is doomed to meet a premature, watery demise. Traumatized by his earlier experience and by his beloved mother's death by drowning, Buddy is so terrified of water that he refuses to wash. However, he is also gifted with the uncanny power to predict rain and locate springs in the parched Indiana soil.

Though dim-witted, Buddy is a human divining rod, but diviners also describes the other residents of Zion, Indiana, a town without a church whose citizens hunger for spiritual transcendence. So, in his own way, does C.C. Showers, a mysterious, charismatic stranger who drifts in from Kentucky looking for work. Everyone, especially Buddy's 16-year-old sister, Jennie Mae, falls in love with him. When they learn that C.C. is a former preacher, Zion's good people insist that he take up the holy calling again. "When a man is born to preach," contends shopkeeper Norma Henshaw, "he'll preach."

However, C.C. has suffered a crisis of conscience and, instead of healing damaged souls as his daddy and granddaddy did, now prefers repairing bicycles. The attempt by the gossips of Zion to coax him back into sermonizing ends in fatal failure.

Directors Dylan Brainard and Tami Kai have mounted their production on a single bare set appropriate to the assertion by a farmer's wife, Luella Bennett, that: "Indiana's nothing but rocks and mud." The text of Jim Leonard, Jr.'s play, first produced in 1980, says of the characters: "These are good and simple people. They have nothing but the best intentions." Aside from the obvious irony that the best intentions yield the worst results, the simplicity of most members of the sizable cast of 12 — including the ghost of Buddy's late mother — flattens the drama.

A salient exception is C.C. As portrayed by Travis Simpson, he is genial and compassionate but also burdened with a hidden anguish that renders him a complex intrusion into the simplicity of Zion. Played by the gifted young Isaac Ouellette, Buddy is, though mentally disabled, a restless vector of tics and idiosyncrasies. He consistently refers to himself in the third person, as if he can be both observer and observed. The other characters, played by a fine ensemble, can only strive to withstand the storm they unwittingly create.

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