Story: The Great Depression has millions of Americans out of work. Even most of those who are employed live hard lives, including the denizens of Zion, Indiana, where farmer Basil Bennett relies on the ability of neighbor Buddy Layman to find much-needed water for his crops with the aid of a ‘divining’ stick. Despite the skepticism of Basil’s wife Luella, the young man does indeed have a penchant for locating moisture in the ground.
Ironically, Buddy has a phobia about water because he nearly drowned years earlier in an accident that took the life of his mother. Brain-damaged by his trauma, Buddy lives unwashed with his father Ferris and sister Jennie Mae. When a stranger named C.C. Showers arrives in town looking for work, he lands a job for food with Ferris, the local auto mechanic. He soon befriends both Buddy and Jennie Mae, and a number of the townsfolk take an interest when they learn that C.C. formerly was a preacher in Kentucky. What C.C. doesn’t want to do, however, is return to the pulpit, for reasons he keeps to himself.
Highlights: This intriguing and intelligent drama by Jim Leonard Jr. originally was performed in 1980, but it has a timeless touch that radiates beautifully under the careful direction of F. Reed Brown. It’s a fitting tribute to the silver anniversary of Ozark Actors Theatre, because it was part of OAT’s inaugural season which was shaped by Brown as its original artistic director and a co-founder.
Other Info: Featuring a strong and highly capable cast as well as pinpoint technical support, this interpretation courtesy of OAT’s producing artistic director Jason Cannon is precisely calibrated under Brown’s incisive guidance. For example, the sound design put together by Cris Abbott is soft and subtle, just loud enough to discern the chirping of crickets or the gentle falling of rain. Bess Moynihan’s lighting plays a significant part, too, beautifully bathing the open landscape of Kevin Shaw’s scenic design to indicate not only time and weather but the emotional surroundings as well.
Amy Hobbs dresses the performers in the simple working togs of the lower middle class in the Hoover era of the Great Depression. Even the props, such as a Schwinn bicycle or a bottle of pop, add appropriate flavor to the proceedings.
Aaron Orion Baker and Gregory Cuellar anchor the presentation with two superb performances in the leading roles. As the ironically named Showers, Baker is alternately mysterious when rebuking his previous vocation and gently reassuring in his care for the fragile Buddy as well as the love-struck Jennie Mae. With his hair combed back in the style of the era, Baker is reminiscent of a young Andy Griffith in his appearance and even the delivery of his lines. He embodies both the soul and the heart of the troubled ex-preacher.
Cuellar owes a debt of thanks to the makeup designer for his greasy, filthy look. His portrayal of the man-child Buddy, though, is due to his own diligence as well as Brown’s encouragement. Constantly referring to himself in the third person, Buddy shows that he’s smarter than people might think when he notices the mutual attraction between C.C. and his sister. There’s also a wonderfully crafted balletic scene with Buddy, C.C. and others in the story’s climax that cleverly realizes the crux of Leonard’s well written tale.
Kristin McGuire shines as the dutiful Jennie Mae, the teen-age girl who serves also as the mother of the Layman household. We see her typical girlish style in some scenes with neighbor Darlene, who also has her eyes on C.C., and in a couple of poignant moments with C.C.
Bryan Dobson richly portrays Ferris, a man still carrying the torch for his late wife and reluctant to discipline his children, whom he says are “like weeds” that will grow and prosper on their own. Kevin Edwards nicely conveys the homespun wisdom of Basil, the town’s amateur doctor who knows what can cure Buddy of his incessant itching, advice ignored by Ferris but faithfully accepted by C.C.
Also contributing in smaller parts that contribute substantially to the production’s impact are Blane Pressler and Michael Detmer as a pair of local farmhands, Laura Light as the proprietor of the town diner, Jenny Adams as Basil’s wife, Susan Holmes as a fervent Bible-belt resident convinced the Lord has sent C.C. to resurrect their moribund church and Kat McCaulla as her man-chasing niece.
The Diviners is a gentle and affecting tale told convincingly in this lovingly crafted rendition. Here’s to another 25 years of success for Ozark Actors Theatre.
Play: The Diviners
Group: Ozark Actors Theatre
Venue: Cedar Street Playhouse, 701 North Cedar, Rolla
Dates: August 9, 10, 11, 12
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jason Cannon