NATIONAL CITY — There's nothing more wonderful than a play so stirring, so involving, that one forgets to applaud.
While the Lamb's Players Theatre audience did come around by the end of "The Diviners," their total silence at the intermission gave hint of emotions astir.
The play by Jim Leonard Jr., premiering here under the keen sensibilities of director Robert Smyth, fully achieves the transcendency so hoped for among playwrights and actors.
The empty, sanded-wood stage, with its black piping and visible banks of lights, melts away under the power of imagination. The watcher is lifted and delivered, fully conscious, into the early 1930s and a tiny town in Indiana farm country.
The nearly nonexistent scenic design by Michael Buckley is a brilliant idea. Coupled with a potent script, a cast completely engrossed in their characters and Smyth's sensitive direction, it holds irresistible power over an audience. One can't help but take an active part in the telling of the tale.
We supply the farmhouse, dust, sunlight, birds, woodsy paths, an old-fashioned dry goods store, fields that need rain and, ultimately, a cold, swirling river bottom that claims lives with frightening swiftness.
Lamb's Players adds actor Phil Card, who gives what must be his most splendid, deeply affecting performance to date as a 17-year-old, retarded farm boy named Buddy Layman.
There's a strange irony in Buddy's story. The boy may possess less than what we consider "normal" intelligence, but his vision is clear in matters of the undefinable "beyond," where he is told his drowned mother lives with Jesus and flies with the angels.
The drowning nightmare that nearly claimed Buddy as well may have caused his mental blocks and left him with a terror of water, but it also moved him halfway out of this dimension and into the next. He hears his mother's voice, senses her nearby, and--of greatest interest to his sympathetic, farming neighbors--he can pinpoint just where water runs under the ground, where the next well ought to be dug.
Hot summer sunshine notwithstanding, Buddy can feel an approaching rainstorm, an ordeal of breath-halting hysterics for Buddy.
The gangly, dirt-streaked boy who refers to himself only in the third-person screams pitifully if anyone tries to lure him near a bath: "He can't breathe! He can't breathe!" His worsening case of ringworm, curable with a douse of cold water, keeps Buddy in an itching frenzy, and his father and sister at wit's end to help him.
But there are two "diviners" in Leonards' title.
C.C. Showers (David Cochran Heath), a disenchanted preacher from Kentucky, walks into this trying situation with nothing more than hope for a job in the midst of a Depression.
Heath and Card together are an experience to savor. Just as Showers "divines" the spiritual center of his young friend, helping us all see through the damaged exterior, the two actors reach inside themselves and pull out more than they've yet given on stage.
Stacey Van Allen, as Buddy's father, Ferris, is so real as an Indiana farmer that he might have been hired right off the field. He captures the contradiction of a man most comfortable with dirt and grease on his hands, yet possessed of a face that reveals every twinge of love and pain. His words bear a characteristic Midwestern twang, exploding from his mouth in too-loud bursts, or wrung out with the anxiety of a man who wants to live simply, but life won't allow it.
Deborah Gilmour-Smyth as a Bible-spouting spinster, Robert Smyth as a concerned doctor and farmer, Ken Wagner and David Carminito as girl-conscious young farmhands, Veronica Murphy Smith as the owner of the local diner, and Bonnie Kucera as Buddy's caring, country-plain younger sister, blend smoothly into the highly theatrical texture of the story.
Anna Plassmann as a young flirt and Gail West as the doctor's dour wife find it a little more difficult to match the tempo of the play's time and place in America.
Smith has found the right touch of drabness as designer of the women's loose dresses and the men's overalls. David Thayer's lighting and sound triumph in the last wrenching scene--adding just enough to what we've already imagined to complete the image.
It's the end we've been expecting, but wishing away. Yet all that has been shown and said before gives it a peaceful feeling, a sense of things moving into their rightful places.
Do not let "The Diviners" slip out of reach before you've touched this play. It's one of Lamb's Players very best.
THE DIVINERS By Jim Leonard Jr. Directed by Robert Smyth. Costume design by Veronica Murphy Smith. Scene design by Michael Buckley. Lighting and sound by David Thayer. Stage manager Karl Mertins. With Phil Card, Bonnie Kucera, Stacey Van Allen, David Cochran Heath, Deborah Gilmour-Smyth, Anna Plassmann, Veronica Murphy Smith, Robert Smyth, Gail West, David Carminito, Ken Wagner. Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., through May 3 at Lamb's Players Theatre, 500 Plaza Blvd., National City.