We all challenge our destiny at some point in life—our faith, our connection to others, our purpose. It’s simply the human way, and it has been for eons. Jim Leonard Jr.’s 1980 play “The Diviners” is a testament to the burdens and enlightenments which move people in family, community and spirituality.
Set in a farm town in Indiana during the Great Depression, the show centers around 17-year-old Buddy who’s suffering from brain damage and claims to have a remarkable sixth sense to find water (a.k.a. divining) for a local farmer—despite the fact Buddy is deathly afraid of water. When a drifter, C.C. Showers, passes through town, he takes to Buddy as a mentor, as well as fascinates many of the local women, including Buddy’s sister, Jennie Mae. C.C.’s background as a preacher man further aids the town’s holy higher calling, which in the end leads to tragedy.
“I heard about the play when City Stage asked me to direct it 12 or 13 years ago,” Don Baker says. “I assumed it was just another ‘Holy Ghost people’-type of play and dismissed it. But I agreed to direct it. When I first read it, I was blown away. It is one of the best plays I have ever read. It is a symphony of the human experience. A community portrait. A family’s portrait. A drifter’s portrait. A times portrait. It’s just a hell of a story. And it is a symphony of words.”
The show hails the 2014 Wilmington Theater Awards winner for Best Actor in a Play, Kenneth Rosander, as Buddy. His younger sister, Jennie Mae, is played by Kaitlin Baden.
“This show is so very much about the relationships that exist between these people,” Baden explains. “Jennie Mae, Buddy and C.C. have this trio going on: C.C. is helping Buddy with his fear of water and bathing. Jennie Mae and Buddy are helping C.C. reconnect with people and find what/whom he loves.”
Baden is no stranger to the hardships and patience required to care for a mentally challenged sibling. In real life, her older sister has a neuro-genetic disorder, whom Baden has nurtured much like a little sister her whole life. She easily can draw from these characteristics in fleshing out Jennie Mae. Still, Baden says there are grave differences between the two. Jennie Mae’s fast-track to adulthood, for one, is impressive. Because her mother dies young and essentially leaves Jennie Mae to be mother, sister, caretaker, head of household, etc., the character’s strength and protectiveness rises. That she steps up to take care of her family in the midst of tragedy is telling, but, for Baden, play such a character means achieving a balance between her 16-year-old natural youthfulness and forced maturity.
“Don and I spoke about how to make sure this came across,” Baden tells, “and one suggestion was that I only let the ‘young, smiley Jennie Mae’ out for snippets of time. Otherwise I was to try to convey her frustrations and to show her hardened side.”
Playing C.C., the vagabond from a long line of Kentucky pastors, is Adam Poole. Poole has brushed up on his Southern preacher skills from the Depression era as research for the role. C.C. arrives in Zion, IN, at just the right time; bad luck has befallen the town.
“Many of the townspeople see him as a savior of sorts and look to him for hope,” Poole says. “This, along with Shower’s desire to start a new life and forget his past, drives the play to its climax”
The rest of the cast is rounded out by Anthony Lawson as Ferris, Kim Ewonus as Basil, Holli Saperstein as Norma, Tamara Mercer as Goldie and Kitty Fitzgibbon as Luella. Director Baker has chosen to guide the show more like a conductor rather than director, wherein scenes and dialogue culminate in a natural flow and order.
“It’s almost like a series of pictures—pictures of moods,” he says. “It is very much an ensemble piece. I honestly can say that I love every single character.”
“The Diviners” is one of the first “straight shows” City Stage has produced in over a year amidst their bill of edgy musicals (“Brooklyn: The Musical,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”). Aside from cast members singing a few hymns, there is no band. “There are some sound effects I created in my bathtub,” musical director Chiaki Ito says. But the heart and soul of the show will come through in unadulterated emotion.
The minimalistic set will be populated heavily by props; most of the design itself is relegated to rakes, with lighting added to reflect “water.” Helping hands consist of Isabel Zermani in costumes, Sue Zarutskie with props, and Dallas LaFon in lighting design.
“I think there are quite a few themes in ‘The Diviners’ that we can all relate to,” Baden says—“doubts, spirituality, hope, misunderstandings, desperation, relationships. Many of these themes are tied to one another, and I think that all are pretty evident throughout the text. Of course, there’s the underlying theme of destiny and fate.”
February 7th – 9th, 14th – 16th and 21st -23rd, 8 p.m., or Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $12 – $16
City Stage • 21 N. Front St. #501