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Chemistry as Pure as Water

Theater review: 'The Diviners' meshes impeccable casting, fine acting and balanced direction to give punch to a Bible Belt tragedy.

March 11, 1997|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BREA — In his program notes for the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble's production of "The Diviners," director Tom Amen quotes playwright Jim Leonard Jr. on the characters: "These are good and simple people, they have nothing but the best of intentions."

It gives away nothing to say that Buddy Layman dies in the play. It's announced in the opening monologues. The story is how Buddy died, at the hands of "good and simple people" with "the best of intentions," and it's a pretty harsh indictment of fundamentalist thinking in the Bible Belt.

Buddy is developmentally challenged, to use a phrase that was unknown in the dark days of the Depression, when 4-year-old Buddy almost drowned in the same river that took his mother's life. He never recovered, never forgot his dread of water, never bathed.

But by the time he was in his mid-teens, he could divine where water could be found and what sort of weather was on its way across the mostly barren prairie. And he became the special friend of C.C. Showers, a wanderer and former preacher looking for simple work in exchange for food. Showers eventually calms Buddy's fears and leads him to the first steps toward cleanliness.

As Buddy steps into the river shallows to bathe, the good women of Zion--having decided that in spite of his protestations, Showers is going to be their new preacher--conclude that Showers is baptizing Buddy, not just washing him. En masse, they invade this very private and psychologically delicate moment, and the results are catastrophic.

The chemistry between the actors playing Buddy and Showers is vital to the play's success, and Amen has cast the roles with impeccable taste. As Showers, Tony Masters has the right down-to-earth sense of his own intelligence and hard-won role in life; as Buddy, Jared Slater's effervescence in happy moments is as infectious as his shattering undercurrent of doom during moments of despair.

Joyce Eriksen and particularly Alexandra Robertson are chilling in their complacency as the leaders of the townswomen, who have little better to do than tell others what and how to think. Stu Eriksen gives a relaxed and thoughtful performance as a local practitioner who fathoms Buddy better than most. Vince Campbell is warm and effective as Buddy's understanding father, and as Buddy's loving sister, Kristin Darlington shares, like Masters, a strong chemistry with Slater.

Amen's direction is emotionally and visually strong except in those moments when the action is stretched across a stage that is too wide. This misstep in design has resulted in entrances and exits that take too much time and sometimes force Amen into static stage pictures that fill the space too thinly.

* "The Diviners," Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Drive, Brea. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends March 23. $13-$15. (714) 990-7722. Running time: 2 hours.

Tony Masters: C.C. Showers

Jared Slater: Buddy Layman

Vince Campbell: Ferris Layman

Kristin Darlington: Jennie Mae Layman

Stu Eriksen: Basil Bennett

Alexandra Robertson: Norma Henshaw

Joyce Eriksen: Luella Bennett

A Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production of a play by Jim Leonard Jr., directed by Tom Amen. Scenic and lighting design: Bob Mumm. Sound design: Howard Johnston. Costume design: Anna Moncovich.

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