Divine tragedy

A can’t-miss production of mythical Depression-era tale

The preacher (Isaiah Bent) helps Buddy (Joel Ibanez) fly.

The preacher (Isaiah Bent) helps Buddy (Joel Ibanez) fly.

Photo Courtesy of theatre on the ridge

The Diviners shows Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, 2 p.m., through Sept. 30, at Theatre on the Ridge.
Tickets: $12-$14.

Theatre on the Ridge
3735 Neal Road, Paradise

With its latest production, Theatre on the Ridge has tapped into a setting that will probably feel all too familiar.

The Diviners, written by Jim Leonard Jr., takes place during the Dust Bowl/Great Depression of the 1930s, in the mythical rural town of Zion, Ind., a place where—much like many parts of contemporary America—the farmers worry about getting enough rain for their crops and the working man curses the politicians for not getting the country back to work fast enough. But even more than the familiar chords of drought and recession, what resonated during the opening-night performance last Thursday (Sept. 6) was the smaller picture: an intimate, moving and at times magical snapshot of a small group of “simple people” living through difficult times as played by a graceful and energetic cast.

Described as “a play in two acts and elegies,” The Diviners begins at the end. With the delicate strains of “Amazing Grace” fading into the dark theater, we learn from the first line of the opening elegy that one of the main protagonists—the so-called “idiot-boy” Buddy Layman—has died. And over the course of the two acts leading up to the closing elegy, we see the events that play out on the way to Buddy’s demise.

It turns out that Buddy has a sense for water. He can predict when a storm is on its way, and with a divining stick in hand he can even locate spots where fresh water flows underground. However, due to a traumatic childhood incident involving his mother dying in the nearby river, he is also deathly afraid of touching water in any way. No rain. No bathing. And no cold water to sooth the itching ringworm taking over his body.

Enter the stranger, C.C. Showers, an itinerant former preacher running away from his past who wanders into town looking for work, which he finds as an apprentice to Ferris Layman, Buddy’s mechanic father.

As the story plays out, we soon find out that the town’s church has burned down, and not only does Zion need water, but it needs its faith re-quenched as well.

While the town looks to them both to fulfill its needs, Buddy and C.C. connect with one another. Buddy is helping C.C. come to terms with his crisis of faith, while C.C. tries to help Buddy get over his fear of water and to better understand his mother’s death.

And of course, impending tragedy looms over it all.

(Not to give too much away, but the creative way director Richard Lauson and his sound and light crew—Gary A. Kupp, Brockton James and Charlie Murphy—handle the culminating scene is surprising and wonderful.)

More so than any local production in recent memory, this cast won me over. All of the main characters—Buddy, C.C., Farris, and Buddy’s sister Jennie Mae—were very engaging, and the actors’ interactions with each other were natural and fluid—from the charismatic and earnest Isaiah Bent as the conflicted C.C. to the sweet Alysa Kleiner as the kind older sister with a crush on the handsome preacher.

Joel Ibanez was flawless and endearing as Buddy, playing the ticks and quirky vocalizations (referring to “himself” in the third person) to good effect without turning his character into a sideshow. And, Bruce Dick was perfect as Buddy’s weary, rough-around-the-edges father trying to scratch a living out of being the town mechanic. As soon as Dick walked on stage and croaked out his first dust-choked lines, all of the color and character of the period fell into place.

There were standouts among the secondary characters as well. JC Newport was spot on as the one-track-minded “true believer” Norma, the owner of the town’s dry-goods store who desperately wants the preacher to revive Zion’s spiritual life. And the vivacious Jessica Smith seemed born to play the contrasting role of Norma’s wild niece Darlene, eager to catch the boys’ eyes and quick to roll hers when reciting Bible verses for her aunt.

The only complaint, really, would be with some of the secondary characters and their apparent opening-night jitters, which were mostly of no consequence but did interrupt the flow of a couple of the scenes with the character of farmer Basil Bennett (who, it turns out, will now be played by director Lauson for the remainder of the run).

Overall, though, it was an extremely satisfying night of theater: a well-played production of a simple-yet-magical story that strikes a delicate balance by simultaneously avoiding both hokey sentimentality and modern cynicism. One of those rare can’t-miss local shows.