Thursday, January 20, 2011

A divine interpretation of a Depression-era drama

Photo by Heather L. Smith/The Aurora Sentinel

There’s a power to the natural world, an unsettling force that shows its hand in everything from rainstorms to cyclones.
Jim Leonard Jr.’s Depression-era drama “The Diviners” taps into that anonymous, frightening energy — it becomes a constant, unnamed presence that lurks behind the conversational tone and measured pace of the piece. A looming storm deeply affects the characters in Leonard’s fictional Indiana town of Zion; their collective fates seem tied inextricably to the course and current of the river that cuts through their land.

The PHAMALy theater troupe’s current staging of the show does a fine job of balancing that larger undercurrent with folksy charm and affecting characterization. Compelling human drama finds a place alongside larger themes of faith and nature. Individual questions of family duty and religious devotion play out in a daunting, symbolic landscape.
Most striking, perhaps, is the way this particular company tackles the drama’s central theme of personal gifts. Since 1989, PHAMALy — short for the Physically Handicapped Artists and Musical Artists League — has worked to provide professional opportunities for actors, artists and crew members living with physical disabilities. The theme in “The Diviners” of looking past superficial appearances to find deeper, inner gifts gains an added power in this production.
With action largely consisting of folksy conversations between small-town characters in 1932-era Indiana, the pacing of the piece can feel heavy at times. Still, there’s an appeal to Leonard’s easy writing style, to his exploration of deep themes in simple, spoken rhythms. What’s more, compelling performances from the lead actors and the ensemble make the most decisive moments of the text more fluid.
Leonard’s story revolves around Buddy Layman (Daniel Traylor), a 14-year-old labeled an “idiot boy” by the rest of the townspeople. Tended by his father, Ferris (Jason Dorwart), and his sister, Jennie Mae (Lyndsay Giraldi-Palmer), Buddy acts as the small town’s charity case. The gangly teen is constantly covered in dirt, he always refers to himself in the third person and he operates with the dazzled innocence of a toddler.
But Buddy Layman also posseses a special gift. Armed only with a willow rod, the boy “divines” for water in the parched Dust Bowl landscape of Zion; guided by a stick, he can sense underground wells and aquifers, he can find water hidden in the dust and clay.
It’s a gift borne of grief, a blessing wrought from loss. We learn that Buddy’s mother drowned in the town’s river rescuing Buddy when he was an infant. The tragedy gave Buddy his keen skill for finding water and predicting rain, but it also instilled in him a terror of coming in contact with any damp substance. He won’t bathe. He won’t swim. He won’t let his skin touch water.
When C.C. Showers, played by longtime PHAMALy lead Jeremy Palmer, arrives in town looking for work, he finds an immediate kinship with the Layman family. Showers, a former preacher who’s recently suffered a crisis of faith, finds welcome and warmth from the town’s residents, especially after they learn of his former career as a man of God. As Showers warms to Buddy and as sparks begin to emerge with the 16-year-old Jennie Mae, his role as a hired worked expands. The former preacher becomes fixated with the idea of undoing the boy’s fear of water enough to give him a simple bath and clear a worsening case of ringworm. Showers’ push to reclaim Buddy from the dust and dirt intensifies to the point of zeal — making the boy confident and comfortable enough to re-enter the water takes on a missionary feel.
The lead actors approach their characters with sympathy and sensitivity. As Buddy Layman, Traylor isn’t cloying or overwrought. Palmer’s performance as Showers mixes skepticism with good-hearted authenticity, just as Giraldi-Palmer and Dorwart give his relatives a due amount of concern and loyalty in their performances. The ensemble is just as compelling as Zion’s eclectic collection of small town characters; Don Mauck boasts the wisdom of a small-town doctor and farmer is his portrayal of Basil Bennet, for example, and the easygoing conversations between Dewey Maples (Nick Ortiz-Trammell) and Melvin Wilder (Edward Blackshere) offer a quaint kind of comic relief.
Most importantly, director Christy Montour-Larson adds an important underpinning to the story of the Laymans, Showers and the town of Zion. With the aid of Set Designer Tina Anderson and Sound Designer El Armstrong, she hints at the mute character of the wind and the rain, the water and the currents that play a decisive role in Leonard’s story. A crucial scene in the river, for example, finds a graceful execution in the combination of lighting, sound effects and careful direction.
Like in all of its shows, PHAMALy leaves its distinctive stamp on Leonard’s text. Ferris Layman moves around the stage in a wheelchair; Basil Bennet’s short onstage appearance on a bicycle isn’t impeded by the fact that actor Don Mauck is blind. As usual, such touches quickly meld into the larger story and the skill of the cast and crew.
Still certain lines in Leonard’s text seem to resonate more deeply. When characters speak of blessings gained from personal struggle, when a character declares, “You’re born with all kinds of amazing things,” the words seem especially meaningful.
Three stars out of four.

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