Irvington's The Diviners impresses on many levels


By: Pamela Depper

Jacob Rosen as Buddy
The Diviners, an engaging slice-of-life play by Jim Leonard, Jr., explores beliefs and religion in a light Biblical allegory set in rural Indiana during the Great Depression. Told through a series of vignettes, rather than through a linear plotline, The Diviners is entertaining and thought-provoking. Under Scott Di Lorenzo’s thoughtful direction, the characters are well drawn, and each young actor is given an opportunity to explore a new depth of emotion. 

The story begins as CC Showers (Robert Ritchie) arrives in town. CC is a former preacher in search of work, and in search of himself. He finds the Layman family—Ferris, a widowed father, (Matt Hong) his affection-starved, dutiful daughter, Jennie Mae, (Katie Kelly, who shares the role with Rachel  Ho) and her fourteen-year-old brother Buddy, (Jacob Rosen) a mentally-challenged, emotionally damaged boy with a deep phobia of water--and the gift of divining, finding unseen water.  It’s a gift that’s needed by the farmers whose livelihoods are ravaged by the Dust Bowl. 

Water is their salvation, but the townspeople of Zion believe it’s their souls that need saving. The town has been without a preacher for a decade, and their thirst for religion makes them look to the reluctant CC Showers as their savior.  Water is also on Showers’ mind. He develops a close relationship with Buddy, and discovers that the boy has been too terrified of water to wash himself. He makes it his mission to help Buddy overcome his fear and regain his health.

The three leads, who are the most seasoned performers in the cast, carry the show’s emotional depth. Senior Robert Ritchie gives a sensitive, mature performance as CC, and he has a strong rapport with each of the other actors.  Senior Katie Kelly plays Jennie Mae with a heartfelt beauty, alternating between school-girlish innocence and world-weariness with aplomb.  She has a face and voice made for the stage. Angelic-looking freshman Jacob Rosen gives an impishly endearing, yet ultimately gut-wrenching performance as Buddy. These three actors transcend the high school level and deliver thoroughly satisfying, exceptional performances.

The rest of the cast warms into their roles as the play progresses.  In their thirst for spirituality, each townsperson has an encounter with the preacher that they take to be a religious experience; but CC claims “he spent his whole life doin’ for the Lord; he’s doin’ for himself now.” Everyone is certain that there is something holy about CC—yet they ignore the inherent holiness of the filthy “idiot boy” Buddy, who truly has a heavenly gift.

The supporting characters work together to portray a different point of view toward CC and Buddy. Norma Henshaw, played by Samantha Liu, (who shares the role with  Kyra Halpenny ) longs so much for a preacher that she sees miracles in everyday interactions with CC.  Skeptical Luella (Thao Le, who shares with Savanna Benedetti) has become so devoid of beliefs that she cannot accept Buddy’s powers even when they’re proven to her. Goldie, (Savannah Riddle, shared by Cheyenne Genberg ) who owns the town’s diner, portrays the archetype church woman who’s lost the thread of the meaning behind Christian charity. She gives a spirited performance, and is fun to watch. Matt Hong as Ferris Layman projects a little more age and world-weariness without resorting to common high school clich├ęs.

Other notable performances include Frances Ramsel (who alternates in the role with Mina Baldovino) as Darleen, Norma’s rebellious niece who longs to dance and enjoy the company of men.  She has a nice sense of the time and style of the piece. Zachary Lew as Melvin embodies a local boy who has the self importance of having seen a little of the world and thinks he knows it all. The supporting cast needs to enunciate a bit more to make their otherwise lovely portrayals even better.

Beautiful scenic painting and a sepia wash to the lighting design gives a sense of time; the muted costuming color palette gives the sense of the poor farmers of the Dust Bowl and a feeling of looking at a distant time.

The cast needs to speak louder over the scene changes, because we lose some dialogue during them. A bit of music would help dampen the sound of the rolling set pieces and might make the changes smoother.

The emotional conclusion leaves the audience shattered as the townspeople discover the terrible toll their thirst for redemption has taken.  As a biblical allegory,  The Diviners asks the audience to always question who is the saved and who is the savior, and reminds us that angels are always around us.

The Diviners will be performed November 29, 30 and December 1, 6, 7, and 8 at 7:00 p.m., with additional Saturday matinees at 2:00 on December 1 and 8. Tickets are $12. Contains mild profanity.  For tickets, visit www.irvingtondrama.com or call 510-656-5711. Tickets are also available at the door at Irvington High School’s Valhalla Theatre, 41800 Blacow Road, Fremont, CA.

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