Dallas — Storm clouds darkened skies outside on Saturday night, as house lights darkened and stage lights went up. A handsome stylized scrim of red, rolling plowed fields (think of a Thomas Hart Benton painting) fronts an enormous video screen of blue skies with pale orange clouds adrift, darkening to grey at the edges. A distant farmhouse and windmill are just visible at the horizon, and a steeply raked stage the color of dust and wooden planks drops toward the front row of seats in Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ intimate performing space.
Even before anyone speaks in Jim Leonard’s The Diviners, director René Moreno and set designer Rodney Dobbs have transported the audience to Zion, a small farming community in Indiana during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Stan Graner’s music, both recorded and sung by the cast, is rich in working men’s anthems and church hymns of the period, contributing to an evening of superb and subtle environmental theater. Written in 1980, the play presents the familiar details of small town life in middle America in a nostalgic vein: farmers grumble about repossessed tractors and President Hoover’s prohibition laws, and the mechanic chews tobacco as he admires the perfection of a Schwinn bike.
The opening scene is a kind of elegy recalling a beloved boy’s death. Then we see Buddy Layman (a tremulous, manic Brandon Kinard), a skinny teenager in baggy overalls, his thin white arms shaking, holding a forked willow stick as he lurches up and down searching for water and a place to dig a well. In one of the play’s best scenes, professional doubter and naysayer Luella Bennett (a wiry, eye-rolling, in-your-face Marianne Gallaway) natters on about needing a “digging machine” to get the job done, while the wild-child works his witching wand like an ostrich bobbing its long neck for balance. Mentally damaged and eager for praise and attention, Buddy collapses in a seizure-like state when he’s done.
This “divining” power and the ability to predict rain is a gift and a curse, the vestiges of Buddy’s near drowning at age four; his mother drowned in the same accident. And though he seeks for it, the boy is terrified of water. He freaks out when it pours down rain and goes berserk at the mention of a bath, resisting even a scrubbing in an iron tub.
When C. C. Showers (a tautly muscular and darkly handsome Daylon Walton), comes to town looking for work, he’s drawn to Buddy, and gains the boy’s trust through patience and sympathetic humor. Buddy’s pretty sister Jennie Mae (a ripe, pony-tail swinging Zoe Kerr) likes C. C. too, but a brief moment of physical attraction prompts the older man’s speedy nervous flight. A former preacher, he no longer thinks his “talk and more talk” has meaning. “Thinking and preaching don’t mix too much,” he says, recalling his preacher father’s emotionally fraught sermons.
Buddy’s dad Ferris (a lanky, slow-on-the-draw Greg Holt) hires the handsome stranger on at his garage. The townspeople are agog over the possibility that maybe they can persuade C.C. to return to the ministry and resurrect their long-vacant church, despite his insistence he’s done with all that.
When Buddy develops a serious case of ringworm, Basil Bennett (a calmly upright Paul J. Williams), the kindly farmer and self-appointed town doctor, tells his father that the only treatment is cold-water baths. C.C. takes on the task of persuading the aquaphobic Buddy that the cool waters of the river are not to be feared, but embraced as a healing bath to take away the itch that torments him. Bathing and baptism takes on a weird resonance, as C.C. seeks to break through Buddy’s past fears to the reality of the here and now.
The plot turns on conflict and misunderstanding: there is a genuine, loving relationship between C.C. and the sweet-natured, damaged boy who longs to “fly away” to his mother in heaven—but the well-meaning yet callous farmers of Zion are Bible-thumpers who want to give miracle status to C.C.’s ordinary acts of kindness, even his lending a hand to the hilariously dramatic Luella after she falls off her bike.
The cast of eleven, outfitted in Barbara C. Cox’s printed vintage dresses, overalls, vests and trousers, all deliver a lively rendition of their somewhat stereotypical roles. You’ll recognize the chatty waitress (Whitney Holotik), the busybody store owner (Lorna Woodford), her devil-dancing daughter (Morgan Laure Garrett), the shy suitor (Nathan Dibben), and the older farmhand who knows all about women (Gregory Hullett). Some of their shorter scenes provide welcome comic energy, whether they involve counting jellybeans, dancing man-to-man, or squealing incredulously about Adam and Eve naked and “doing it” in the Garden of Eden, “which is in Europe.”
Clustering the actors in small groups or all together, director Moreno is marvelous at creating the sudden painterly tableau onstage, with the help of Adam Chamberlin’s beautifully varied lighting design in this hauntingly visual production.
Ignorance is not bliss, as this play tragically demonstrates in the tumultuous and intense final scene, a perfect storm of misdirected religious fervor, hapless human love, and the unpredictable psyche of a gifted, traumatized child. It swallows you up.