The production of James Leonard Jr.’s “The Diviners” begins in blackness while “Amazing Grace” is played on a rundown saw. The lights focus on the young musician, dressed in worn rural clothing. Four young women in flapper-style dresses join in with pleasant voices as two characters foreshadow a death to the audience. This would normally be a disappointing prediction, but very little about the play is disappointing.
Directed by David Edgecombe, “The Diviners” manages to incorporate humor into a tale of kindness and survival. It takes place in southern Indiana during the Great Depression, a time especially when love and friendship are important. The community of Zion has managed to come together to rejoice life, despite the play’s inevitable illustration of death.
As the first act closed, a small fragment of light shone onto Buddy Layman’s dirt-covered face as he cackled his distinctive, humorous laugh. Layman’s character as a mentally impaired 15-year-old boy anchored the production with his slow talking and deathly fear of water. His family and friends care for him but struggle to keep up with his energy and curiosity about the world. Ryan Buen breathes personality into his character with consistency and powerful interactions with the rest of the cast. Where an uneven portrayal of stupidity and intelligence could sacrifice the character’s eloquence, Buen’s ability to tackle a role such as this one seems effortless.
Among the characters keeping Buddy in line are his sister Jenny Mae (Kate Williams), his father Ferris (Jerry MacDonnell) and the ex-preacher C.C. Showers (Nathan Huey), who comes to Zion seeking work. Williams and MacDonnell each bring a professional balance into the production, interacting well with the cast and adding an essence of believability to their roles. The most likable character is Huey’s, who initially struggles to make the character his own but comes back with a touching closing performance. The remainder of the cast delivers above-average acting, despite infrequent stumbling with the lines and occasional smirking in supposed times of anger.
Leonard Jr. masterfully tied the story together with well-written dialogue that lends the characters credible southern accents. Buddy’s speech impediment is animated through his stuttering and inability to speak in the first person, which is sometimes entertaining and sometimes heartbreaking. The script certainly makes up for the lack of props, which would have probably taken away from the play itself.
One of the production’s most enjoyable aspects is its appeal to sight and sound, which add to the painted and two-dimensional scenery of hills and trees. The sky changes colors as the time of day and atmosphere alters, and special effects turn the dirt-covered ground into a blue flowing river. Sounds of thunder, crickets and water give life to otherwise nonexistent ingredients that glue the big picture together. The musical accompaniment should not be overlooked; it becomes increasingly enjoyable as the play advances.
The only flaw is the change in scenes, which is done with no discretion as crewmembers nonchalantly enter and exit the set to add and remove props while the acting resumes. To add additional confusion, the indoor settings have ambiguous boundaries. A mere doorframe signifies a house while a window hanging from the ceiling represents a diner, leading the audience to think that the hills and trees are either indoors as well or strange choices for wallpaper.
In spite of a few minor shortcomings, “The Diviners” provide humor, drama and a little romance that intertwine with a dramatic plot and delightful characters. Ironically, this play managed to vividly bring to life a time and place of loss and death.