An enigmatic reverie on the idea of original sin, human nature, spiritual striving and a sense of belonging, The Diviners is a captivating show. Moving. Unforgettable. Almost like a parable. Once there was a strange, charismatic young man who could divine water for others, but never go near it himself. Odd, guileless Buddy Layman was saved from drowning by his mother (when he was very small) who did not herself survive. That is to say: she gave her life for his. Ever since then, he's been terrified of water, even in small amounts, but under the circumstances, is this so difficult to grasp? Buddy (Brandon Kinard) refers to himself in the third person. His sense of awe and belief in a supreme, benevolent creator is both intuitive and unburdened by a sense of self-contempt. He's always been something of an outsider, though appreciated by his neighbors in the small, religious Indiana town of Zion. When C. C. Showers (Daylon Walton) a transient, erstwhile preacher takes young buddy under his wing, his sister, father, and rest of the community that Buddy's pathological phobia will be cured.
It's very cunning, the way playwright Jim Leonard, Jr. has fashioned The Diviners. For instance, if Buddy hadn't contracted a serious rash (a secular motive for bathing) there might not be a play at all. The key event, the turning point in the narrative comes when C.C. takes buddy swimming (to clean him up) and a couple of busybody zealots insist he is being baptized. C.C.'s past as minister is a sticking point with him. While he insists on disabusing the two ladies of their religious impositions, Buddy is swept into the powerful tides of the elemental, pervasive river. In poetry, we would call Leonard's use of the river a “conceit,” which is to say, a central metaphor that supports the entire piece. Is the river a symbol of mankind's impetuous urges, God's nurturing, yet implacable presence, the collective unconscious, a place of redemption and therefore, healing? Perhaps all of these? Sometimes when a playwright leaves issues unresolved it can feel coy and evasive. Other times oracular and beguiling. In this particular case, I have to say the ending (which left me stunned) was earned and compelling, and Dear God, so achingly somber.
It seems to me so much of the information we need from The Diviners comes in parsed out fragments of information. C.C. never reveals why he gave up the ministry, but confides in Buddy's father, Ferris (Greg Holt) “You can't sweet talk the ladies into bed at night, then preach to them the next day.” (Or words to that effect.) When he and Buddy's sister, Jennie Mae (Zoe Kerr) are relaxing by the river, we gather his abrupt need to leave is in service to his better angels. In the provincial town of Zion, even dancing can be a gateway to sin, and the men understand raw truth is probably not the best way to make time with the ladies. Somewhere in all this Leonard is toying (albeit purposefully) with the compatibility of our intense, mammalian need for comfort and connection, and what we perceive as God's ambitions for us.
I must say, kudos all around to Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, for staging this engaging, mesmerizing, melancholy folk story that seriously explores what it means to live in a state of grace and untainted affection for one another. This ensemble of gifted, nuanced actors had all the poise and harmony of an exquisite orchestra. This is one you shouldn't miss.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas presents The Diviners, playing April 3rd through 27th, 2014. 5601 Sears Street, Dallas, Texas 75206. 214-828-0094. www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com