Colonial Players' ensemble finds faith in 'The Diviners'

  • The cast of Colonial Players’ “The Diviners”. Back row from left: Jay Sullivan (Dewey), Joe Thompson (Basil), Ben Carr (C.C.), Eric Schaum (Buddy), Erik Alexis (Melvin) and Edie Hall (Ferris). Front row: Hannah Sturm (Darlene), Mary Koster (Norma), Mackenzie Blade (Jennie Mae), Karen Lambert (Luella) and Brenda Mack (Goldie).
The cast of Colonial Players’ “The Diviners”.… (Bud Johnson, Special to…)
January 15, 2011|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Colonial Players' current production of "The Diviners" is a powerful, poetic one. Winner of the 1979 American College Theater Festival, and written by Jim Leonard while in his mid-20s, "The Diviners" raises profound questions about faith, fear and family that remain relevant.

Set in the fictional Indiana town of Zion during the Great Depression, the play centers around 14-year-old farm boy Buddy Layman, who has special abilities and handicaps. When the boy appears in the opening scene, he is about to discover underground water with his divining rod, seemingly a miraculous talent to the witnessing neighbors.

Buddy is mentally challenged as a result of nearly drowning at age 4 in an accident that killed his mother and left him terrified of water. As a result, he refuses to wash, leading to a severe case of ringworm.

He has a caring older sister, Jennie Mae, and his widowed father, Ferris, who accept his fears with compassion. Each family member speaks poetically, as do the townspeople, adding an interesting cadence to the natural dialogue.

Although Buddy is alienated by many in Zion's population of 40, some neighbors appreciate his innocent reverence for nature and respect his uncanny ability to divine water and predict rain.

Life brightens for Buddy when disenchanted Kentucky ex-preacher C.C. Showers arrives in town, attempting to break from his family's long tradition of preaching by seeking other work instead. Ferris hires C.C. to work as a bike mechanic, and the ex-preacher develops a teaching relationship with Buddy.

Among their neighbors are farmer Basil Bennett, dry goods store owner Norma Henshaw, who reveres her faith, her teenage niece Darlene, and frisky young farmhands Melvin and Dewey. Café owner Goldie insists that grace be said before eating doughnuts in her cafe. Together with Basil's wife Luella they bemoan the 10-year absence of a preacher in Zion and hope that C.C. Showers will provide that function.

C.C. remains primarily interested in helping Buddy overcome his fear of water and learn to cope with his other problems.

CP director Edd Miller succeeds in guiding the 11-character ensemble of actors to work seamlessly through a series of short scenes in the first act, compelling the audience to care about them in the second act.

Previously seen in CP's "Lion in Winter" and "Christmas Carol," Annapolis High School student Eric Schaum now plays his first CP lead role as Buddy. He is superb, investing his character with fearless honesty, continually referring to himself in the third person and adopting strange, naturally poetic speech patterns. Schaum's Buddy projects a reverence for nature and an innocent trust in people that rings true and inspires the audience to care about his welfare.

Equally compelling is Ben Carr's performance as C.C. Showers, conveying the anger and conflict that come with abandoning his preaching career. When he reverts briefly to his former role, he is charismatic in his rhetorical brilliance. Carr's Showers naturally clarifies Biblical meaning to Buddy and tenderly encourages him to overcome his fears, while projecting a natural solicitude toward the townspeople.

A noteworthy performance is given by St. Mary's High School senior Mackenzie Blade, who invests the role of Jennie Mae with an endearing compassion for her brother and an appealing eagerness to learn what her future may hold.

Annapolis High School drama director Eddie Hall, whose students appear in this play, makes a strong Colonial Players debut as Ferris Layman, projecting Ferris' strong devotion and concern for his children.

The other players — Joe Thompson as temperate, kindly neighbor Basil; Jay Sullivan as lively young Dewey; Erik Alexis as Melvin; Karen Lambert as Luella; Mary Koster as Norma; Brenda Mack as Goldie; and Hannah Sturm as Darlene — all strike the right notes.

Director Miller also serves as set designer, creating a simple, spare set that becomes whatever is required, including a magical, star-touched, moonlit beach and a quiet afternoon fishing pond.

Helping to create this magic is Jennifer Parris' sensitive lighting design. Costume designer Beth Terranova has chosen costumes that reflect the period so well that the audience is convinced it is back in the rustic landscape of the late 1920s.

If you go

"The Diviners" will be performed Thursday, Jan. 20, Friday, Jan. 21, and Saturday, Jan. 22, at the theater, 108 East St., Annapolis. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for seniors and students. Tickets: 410-268-7373 or thecolonialplayers.org.

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