I was surprised to discover that Jim Leonard's The Diviners was written as recently as 1980. The play feels like a period piece, and not just because it's set in the Depression. Buddy Layman, the central character, was brain-damaged by an almost-drowning at the age of four, during which his mother died; since then, he has been so terrified of water that he refuses to allow his father to wash him. But paradoxically, this young boy also has a miraculous ability to predict rain, and to locate water sources for his parched fictitious town. Into this setting comes a stranger — think Orpheus Descending (there's even a significant blue bird in Diviners, as in that magnificent text), Picnic, The Music Man — named C.C. Showers (surely no pun intended?), a preacher who's abandoned his mission and is seeking manual work. Showers forms an understanding bond with the boy. But the religion-ridden town has been without a church for a while, and several of the women are wildly excited when they realize that Showers is the former preacher. Despite his protestations that he no longer has faith, they insist on seeing almost every move he makes as evidence of a divine mission.
There are some good scenes in The Diviners, and some liberating moments of humor, such as when cafe owner Goldie insists that Showers bless the doughnut she serves Buddy's dad, Ferris. I loved his fulminations against Hoover, too, as well as farmer Basil Bennett's observations about the future of agriculture — and the way tractors can spawn like rabbits. But an awful lot here feels derivative, too: Showers wrestles with Buddy as Anne Sullivan did with Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, and there are persistent echoes of Our Town.
I know nothing about playwright Leonard's background, but his perspective on rural life feels like that of an uncomprehending city person. None of the characters is textured or real, and director Christy Montour-Larson doesn't do anything to make them more specific. "The people of Zion are simple, good people," her director's note explains. Right. Aren't all country folk? So — in a rather charming but far from original scene — we have two young men readying themselves for a dance, with one of them hoping a local girl will be his date; a woman obsessed with Jesus, while her friend expresses skepticism; a sweetly protective young sister for Buddy; a farmer you expect to see chewing a straw as he tilts back his hat to check the sky; and Ferris occasionally tossing off a stern admonition but failing to get his son into a bath — even when the boy's health is threatened. (Incidentally, I'm pretty sure water alone won't cure ringworm, but the symbolism on which the play floats — pun intended — requires us to believe it will.)
Presented by PHAMALY through January 30, Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-575-0005, www.phamaly.org.
While lapsed faith can be a fascinating topic, Showers's explanation of why he left his vocation is anti-climactic. And Buddy's insistence on constantly speaking of himself in the third person gets irritating fast.
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Still, this is a PHAMALY production, and the performances are impressive, as they almost always are with this company of physically handicapped actors. Though he could perhaps bring more variety to the role, Daniel Traylor is a graceful, vigorous, passionate Buddy, and Jason Dorwart a strong, likable Ferris. Jeremy Palmer's gentle, intelligent Showers feels far more interesting than the limited script allows him to express, and you sense unvoiced depths also in Lyndsay Giraldi-Palmer's Jennie Mae. Don Mauck beautifully embodies the salt-of-the-earth persona of farmer Bennett, Kathi Wood is radiant as religious Norma, and the interactions between Edward Blackshere and Dewey Maples provide much-needed humor. The climactic final scene is so beautifully acted and staged that it almost redeems the entire enterprise.