Jim Leonard Jr.’s masterpiece, “The Diviners,” features well-crafted writing and beautiful acting. A must-see show put on at City Stage by Cape Fear Arts LLC, Leonard developed “The Diviners” while attending Hanover College. It launched Leonard’s writing career. Since, he has gone on to write for TV shows like “The Closer” and “Dexter.”
“The Diviners” asks some very tough questions about the experience of living a faithful life, and what our responsibilities to each other would be in a truly Christian world. To be blunt, it takes an ironic look at professing faith. That it was developed at Hanover College (my father’s first teaching post) is in itself ironic and interesting considering the school’s Christian leanings (whose most famous graduate is wild-man Woody Harrelson). My mother used to refer to it as: “The Christian school built on a bluff both geographically and metaphorically.”
Set in Zion, Indiana, in the Depression, “The Diviners” remains one of my top 10 favorite American play-scripts. The Layman family is getting by, though just barely, during the tough times the country faces. Patriarch Ferris Layman (Anthony Lawson) is a mechanic raising two children on his own, since his wife died while saving their young son from drowning. Son Buddy Layman (Kenneth Rosander) was under water long enough to have suffered some severe damage, and, among other things, he can now “feel” water. He can tell when storms are coming and he can find wells. He also hasn’t had a bath in recent memory because his sister Jennie Mae (Kaitlin Baden) and his father just cannot bear to put him through the excruciating ordeal.
Into their lives walks C.C. Showers (Adam Poole), who has shrugged off life as a preacher and is looking for work in exchange for a roof and a meal. Showers wants a new start in life while he tries to figure out the answers to the frightening questions in his head. The town, unfortunately, wants a new church and a preacher for it; his appearance rekindles an old struggle in the populace.
For Showers, building a new life with the Laymans is work enough. He develops a special bond with Buddy that is tenuous but gentle.
When we walked out of the theater, my date commented, “There wasn’t a weak link onstage was there?” He’s right. It is truly an ensemble cast and everyone brings their A game.
That having been said, without question, Rosander’s work as Buddy Layman is deserving of specific recognition. By virtue of Buddy’s needs and challenges, as a character it could be very easy to slip into caricature—or inadvertently into something that came across as insensitive or mean-spirited. Rosander has made a series of choices as a performer that show us a physicality and mentality that is very realistic, thoughtful, and consistent. His work is incredible to watch, and he must be exhausted every night when he goes home.
It is heartbreaking to watch Baden and Lawson with him; both so clearly love Buddy and are more than a little terrified not only of that love but of what he can do. Lawson’s performance as a man still in the throes of grief but loving his challenging children is subtle and complex. Frequently cast in comedic roles and as cameos, it is great to see Lawson showcase dramatic depth. Yet, he and Kim Ewonus, who plays a neighboring farmer, do have the audience in stiches with their exchanges about bicycles, women, tractors, and life in general—because they do. As the two old guys who know everything, they are nice mirrors for the two young guys who think they know everything: farm hands Dewey (Patrick Basquill) and Melvin (Brendan Carter).
Unfortunately, Dewey entangles himself with Darlene (Beth Swindell), the niece of Norma Henshaw (Holi Saperstein), a bible thumpin’, dancing-is-a-sin busy body, who is determined that Showers has come to save the town and will start by baptizing the Layman boy. One can’t help but sympathize for Dewey and Darlene at the mercy of this frightening haradin—who believes that she is firmly in the right and that all others should fall in line with her. Somehow in his quiet, polite way, Poole is her foil.
Showers is such a complicated role: one part con-man, one part true believer, one part conflicted sinner, one part frightened young man, one part disappointing child, and still an enigma even to himself. Everyone has expectations of him, and yet he can’t meet any of them. Poole’s character scares himself, ultimately, with good reason.
Much like “A Christmas Carol” opens with the announcement that Jacob Marley is dead, “The Diviners” opens with the pronouncement that Buddy Layman is dead. For two hours, we watch brilliant, beautiful people, filled with life, love, longing, and pain pulse in front of us. Even though I knew the script very well, as the director, Don Baker, and his incredible cast move inexorably toward the terrible, inevitable conclusion, I gripped my date’s hand and prayed it wouldn’t happen.
The set is sparse but functional, especially for the river scenes and digging for well-water. The bare stage puts the relationships between the characters front and center—which makes them sparkle and become the magic of the show. This talented ensemble makes it happen with grace at every turn. I came to “The Diviners” with high
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Fri. – Sun. through Feb. 23rd, 8 p.m.; or Sun., 3 p.m. • Tickets: $12 – $14
City Stage, 21 N. Front Street
(910) 264-2602 • www.citystagenc.com