The Diviners | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Pointe Theatre Company

at the Rally Theatre

With its large cast of crusty, rustic characters and its evocative use of ear-catching rural dialect and quirky turns of phrase, The Diviners would seem an excellent vehicle for an apprentice-level acting company like the Pointe Theatre. Jim Leonard Jr.'s play, a study of rural midwestern depression-era life that resonates with the author's ironic use of religious symbolism, has plenty to offer young actors: lots of juicy roles, a richly textured and colloquially American script, and a broad range of emotions.

So it's particularly disappointing to see how inadequately the Pointe company--most of them, including director Louis Contey, recent graduates of the DePaul University Theatre School--have responded to these opportunities. It's not just a matter of fluffed lines, studied or rushed delivery, and missed cues--though there were plenty of those at the performance I attended. What's so distressing about this production is the apparent failure of the cast and director to understand the play they have chosen to present.

Set in what the program calls "the mythical southern Indiana town of Zion"--the town's name is the first of many biblical allusions--The Diviners tells the story of an itinerant ex-preacher and his fateful encounter with a strangely gifted, strangely cursed teenage boy. The ex-preacher, C.C. Showers, has turned away from his former calling in search of more real, more earthly values; instinctively and unconsciously seeking a way to use his talents for spiritual healing, he finds an outlet in his friendship with Buddy Layman, an illiterate, half-civilized wild child with a special sensitivity to water. Buddy can predict rainstorms and "divine" hidden wells deep under the parched earth; but he is terrified of being in water, so much so that he refuses to bathe.

Protected but misunderstood by his widowed father and younger sister and alienated by his wild ways from the rest of the tiny town, Buddy develops a deep kinship with Showers. He asks the ex-preacher to help him make sense of the confusing things he's heard about heaven, the place where he's been told his mother went after she drowned. Showers, uncomfortable discussing a faith he no longer holds, focuses on helping Buddy overcome his terror of water--an issue that has become critical because Buddy is badly afflicted with ringworm, the treatment for which is cold baths.

Like John Steinbeck in his depression tale The Grapes of Wrath, playwright Leonard employs biblical imagery to both elevating and ironic effect. Buddy, whose condition is at once a blessing and a curse to him, is a Christlike figure, and Showers's eventual bathing of Buddy in the river marks him as a surrogate John the Baptist. The loving qualities embodied in the two men are cast against the repressive, ignorant religiosity of the town Bible thumpers, whose efforts to pressure Showers into resuming his ministerial calling set the stage for the play's shocking conclusion. The catastrophic collision of emotions at the drama's climax stems inevitably from its characters' contrasting expressions of spiritual need. Those characters are superficially quaint but inwardly tempestuous--it's as if Leonard had taken Grant Wood's American Gothic and ripped the canvas open to reveal one of Francis Bacon's demonic, gape-mouthed bishops.

Never--not even in its most accomplished performances--does Pointe's The Diviners come near to the emotional intensity to which Leonard's play should build. Tracy Letts, the company's best-developed actor, is likable and sympathetic as Showers, and the angular, slightly hunched posture he affects to indicate that Showers is an outsider in a closed society interestingly recalls the distorted figures in Thomas Hart Benton's paintings of rural Americana. But Letts fails to probe the deep spiritual crisis that haunts Showers and propels the play's action. Buddy, despite the energetic acting of Robert Dennard Simonton, seems like little more than a hyperactive neighborhood kid looking for his lost skateboard. Nothing in his performance--or in the other characters' reactions--suggests the deep gulf of understanding that divides Buddy from the other townsfolk, so Showers's befriending of the boy doesn't register as the jolting act of redemption Leonard intends. That, in turn, dissipates most of the intensity of Showers's sexual attraction to Buddy's ripe teenage sister, Jenny Mae; a scene in which Showers and Jenny Mae inch toward sex is played for awkward comedy, like something out of The Andy Griffith Show ("But gaw-lee, Miz Layman, yore only 16! Shazayam!"). When Jenny Mae's friend Darlene is chastised for the "sinful" act of dancing with a boy by her fundamentalist Christian aunt, it seems like some cute, irrelevant subplot rather than the crucial act of dangerous zealotry that leads inexorably to the story's final tragedy.

This is not to say that The Diviners should be played without humor; quite the contrary. It is at many times a very funny play; the way Leonard links humor to horror is what gives The Diviners its particular flavor and distinguishes it from other works that it often resembles (The Miracle Worker, The Rainmaker, and Picnic, as well as The Grapes of Wrath, come quickly to mind).

The show starts out strongly, as Karen Dryer's gutsy offstage voice wails "Amazing Grace" while the audience regards Mark Netherland's excellent set--an interlocking network of steep stairways and sharply angled platforms painted varying shades of brown and black, suggesting the layers of feeling and meaning in Leonard's play. But as in so many college shows, the set is a whole lot better than the performance. Played as it ought to be, The Diviners explores deep dramatic waters; the Pointe Theatre's production stays in the shallows.

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