What could easily have proved a baptism in schmaltz, Jim Leonard Jr.'s "The Diviners" becomes instead a touching and at times deeply affecting immersion in complex emotions.
The play, an early work by a prominent contemporary playwright, won top honors at the American College Theater Festival in 1980 for its exploration of loneliness, faith and human community in a small town in the Depression-era Appalachian foothills.
This production at the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts Theaterfest conveys nuance and understatement through performances and staging, almost transcending the limitations of a still-maturing playwright's vision. Once again, the PCPA program has proved itself willing to take a risk with less mainstream material and make it pay off.
In the tiny mythical town of Zion, a disturbed teen-age boy struggles with the traumatic memory of his mother's accidental drowning. The event has left Buddy (Leal Butler) with a tenuous, dissociated grip on the external world--he speaks of himself in the third person, echoes the words of others in an eerie trance of half-understanding, and refuses to bathe or come into contact with water.
Yet he's also gifted in some narrowly focused areas, in one scene correctly guessing the 702 jelly beans in the display case at the general store (shades of Dustin Hoffman's savant in "Rain Man"). But most important to the townspeople is his ability to "divine" water--locating hidden wells and predicting rainfall patterns--even though the element terrifies him.
Into the close-knit but impoverished community arrives a former preacher, C.C. Showers (Frederic Barbour), who abandoned his ministry in a crisis of faith ("Thinking and preaching don't mix").
Offering to earn his keep with common labor, Showers strikes up a friendship with Buddy. In their deepening bond we witness psychological barriers coming down.
Bereft of a preacher of their own, the townsfolk clamor to adopt Showers as their spiritual leader, but instead he pursues a smaller-scale calling; overcoming Buddy's phobia of water. Dangerous stuff without a broader subtext--a false note in these two performances could ruin all credibility in the delicate emotional balance, but that misstep never occurs.
Even better, the supporting cast consistently maintains this level of quality in a seamless ensemble, with no rough edges.
Given less humanistic treatment, this material has all the elements of a pretentious social diatribe, a recycled "Grapes of Wrath."
But director Paul Barnes has been careful to keep the production focused on the small and connected. There are endless subtle touches in the visual staging. If a scene ends on the word "light," the next will begin with a character carrying a lantern, and so on. But the play's greatest strength also proves its most serious limitation. The story of Buddy Layman is so deeply rooted in the personal that it never achieves the more universal associations the character's name might suggest.
Buddy is such an extreme, quirky creation that we can never see the aftermath of his presence on the lives he touches.
As a result, it's hard to feel more here than the passing sadness for a tragic headline--regrettable, but separate from our own lives.
WHERE AND WHEN
"The Diviners" continues Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 10. Performances are at 8 p.m. at the Allen Hancock College Marian Theatre, 800 S. College Drive, in Santa Maria. Tickets are $14 or 16 for evening performances, $9 or $12 for matinees. For reservations or further information call (800) 221-9469.