INDIANAPOLIS — To understand “The Diviners,” the latest production from Casey Ross Productions, you need to have an understanding of mythology of divining water.
Divining, considered a gift from God, is the skill of being able to locate underground water with the use of a Y-shaped stick. When a diviner passes over a section of ground with water underneath, the stick points downward to the location of the water. This pseudoscience was used by farmers of the Midwest and the Great Plains in the early 1900s to find the best location for digging a well or planting crops on their homesteads.
“The Diviners,” written by Hoosier playwright Jim Leonard Jr. and directed by Casey Ross, tells the story of Buddy Layman, played movingly and artfully by Pat Mullen.
As a very young child, Buddy survived a near-drowning accident that claimed his mother and left Buddy with a deathly fear of water — but the gift of divination — which he demonstrates early in the show by helping farmer Basil Bennett (played by David Mosedale) locate a spot for a new well.
The audience is led to make the assumption that Buddy’s time underwater during the accident also left him brain-damaged. Buddy demonstrates his impairment by speaking of himself in the third person. Mullen’s characterization of him is inspired and endearing with his childlike innocence and a mannerism of looking up and askance at people who are talking to him.
Through his interaction with the other characters and his family, we come to understand that Buddy, in spite of his handicap and the fact that his fear of water keeps him from bathing, is a beloved member of the community for his gift of divination.
Another trait of Buddy’s is that he makes friends easily, and he quickly befriends C.C. Showers (played by Davey Pelsue), a wanderer up from Kentucky who is trying to break away from a long line of family preachers.
Showers works slowly to win Buddy’s trust and gradually introduce him to water in the hopes that he can overcome his fear.
The show, set in the early 1930s, struggles to convey the time period. The 1930s setting is integral, but some of the costuming, particularly for the women, seemed a little off. And although the accents were great, there was a modern edginess and tempo in the line delivery that just didn’t ring true to the 1930s.
The spare and representational wood plank set was adequate, but ultimately, it was the bluegrass and gospel seating music that went a long way toward creating the desired period piece feel.
Zach Stonerock, a graduate of Eastern Hancock High School, delivered a wonderfully understated performance as Ferris Layman, Buddy’s father. With his greasy shirt and suspenders, the ever present rag in his hand from working on car engines, and a number subtle gestures and nuances, he created the most realistic performance of the evening.
Paige Scott’s portrayal of Norma Henshaw, the religious fanatic, was a chilling mash-up of Vicki Lawrence’s flat dry accent as Mama in “Mama’s Family” and the psychotic Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s “Misery.” Henshaw was thrilled to have a new preacher in town (the previous minister left when the church burned down) and refused to take no for an answer when Showers declined the position.
This production features a lot of strong characters, but it isn’t always necessary for strong characters to engage in loud dialogue.
There were opportunities throughout the show for some quiet and tender scenes that were missed; in particular, the preacher’s confession and a romance scene between two of the characters. The dialogue lacked the softness of speech that would not have diminished the strength of their characters at all.
The production has some interesting quirks that in no way detract from the quality of the performance. First, the show began and ended with basically the same scene, so the audience knew from just about the time the lights went up what the outcome of the drama would be.
Secondly, some strange bits of playwriting create non sequitur vignettes among the supporting characters that seem to have nothing to do with the plot. These scenes may have been written by the playwright to add flavor to the 1930s setting or develop character, or to create a multi-layered plot, or maybe they were added to merely pad out the script to two hours.
The final scene — created entirely with lights (David C. Matthews), sound (Casey Ross) and strong performance — was worth the cost of admission. No spoilers, but, as Buddy said repeatedly throughout the show: “You can’t breathe underwater,” and the audience will hold its breath until the final curtain.