Temporary Theatre Company

at Mayfair United Methodist Church

I’m not sure what business Jim Leonard Jr. has writing a John Steinbeck play, but he doesn’t do a half bad job of imitating the literary master of misfits, preachers, hired hands, and dust. The Diviners, Leonard’s first play, first performed in 1981, is set in the early 1930s in an Indiana farm community. It mixes everyday events with extraordinary elements in such an easygoing way that it merits comparison to works such as Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.

This play revolves around a sort of idiot savant. At 14, Buddy Layman can barely tie his shoes and only speaks about himself in the third person: “He can’t help it if he’s daffy.” Yet Buddy has a strange talent for “feeling” water–seemingly the result of surviving the drowning accident that killed his mother ten years earlier. He’s delighted to help farmers find underground water sources and to warn them when heavy rains are coming, but terrified to touch the stuff. Just the thought of taking a bath sends him into a panic.

Once we’ve met the dirt-covered but sweet Buddy and a sampling of the population of Zion, Indiana–including the friendly farmer Basil, who tends to his neighbors’ doctoring needs, and Buddy’s sister Jennie Mae, the calming influence in his life–we’re ready to meet “the stranger.” Enter C.C. Showers, the ex-preacher running away from his past, whose name conjures up images of rainmaking con men. We suspect he has something to hide, but the truly pleasant surprise is that he’s an ordinary, good-hearted man who simply got tired of hearing himself talk.

Like Steinbeck, Leonard knows the crux of a story isn’t sensational circumstances or extraordinary people, but the way ordinary people act in different situations. Except for Buddy, with his innocent glow and hyperactivity, most of the characters maintain an even keel. Nobody is extraordinarily stupid, smart, cruel, or saintly. We see how each character has a private agenda and how these agendas overlap.

C.C. takes a job with Buddy’s father Ferris, the town mechanic, and develops a rapport with Buddy. The whole town has been concerned that Buddy never bathes and is afflicted by painful itching, but C.C. is the first to get the boy to clean even his feet. C.C.’s main concern becomes curing Buddy’s ringworm.

Meanwhile, Norma, a Bible-loving storekeeper, is intent on getting C.C. to preach in Zion. The town’s church burned down ten years before, around the time Buddy’s mother drowned. When the struggle between C.C. and Buddy and the one between Norma and C.C. overlap, two mostly humorous situations fulfill their dramatic potential, as everyone ends up at the river.

Leonard pokes fun without assuming superiority, depicts tragedy without laying blame. All that his play lacks is Steinbeck’s grittiness. The townspeople seem soft, as if they weren’t worried about the Depression or crops ruined by the whim of nature. It’s hard to believe any farmer could be so nonchalant about the economy as Basil when he says, “Banks can’t hurt anything. They’re all folded.” Cynicism may not be in Leonard’s range, but he’s very good at expressing optimism. Again and again Basil utters diamonds of hope. He’s able to make us see the worst tragedy as a time to begin again, “Like a slate wiped clean. Or a fever washed away.”

Leonard also exhibits a knack for the language of young people in the boldness of the teenagers searching Zion for romantic and sexual connections. The lusty Darlene sneaks out of her aunt’s house at night and with ironic innocence tells Jennie Mae, “I’m just out looking for trouble.” Dewey, who wants to ask Darlene out, is equally blunt when his ego is on the line, saying, “I don’t love you or nothing.”

Suzanne Hannon directs a creative and engaging production, supported as much by Tom Mitchell’s set design as by the excellent cast. Though there’s a lot of talk about rain and water, the set reflects the farmers’ want of water and Buddy’s aversion to it: it’s a dirt-covered ravine that runs on a diagonal through the middle of the stage.

The characters don’t seem to be depressed by the endless sea of brown, but they’re buoyed up when rain finally comes. They establish the energy of a storm by sweeping, dropping beans into a jar, peeling potatoes, sharpening tools, and shaking sheets of metal–all of which also re-create the sounds of a storm. The bits of stage business remind us that for everyone in this farming community except Buddy rain represents life and productivity.

Sal Foto as Buddy does well to remember that handicapped doesn’t mean two-dimensional. Buddy talks strange and swings between whimpering for his mother and giggling hysterically at anything that amuses him. But he’s still a boy: funny, serious, and intensely curious; hungry for jelly beans and thirsty for root beer.

Jamie Denton is equally strong in the lead role of C.C. Showers, playing the former preacher with a mix of sensitivity and rascality reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. But Leonard’s script and Hannon’s direction are such that actors in lesser roles are often equally memorable. Shari Friederich as Darlene stands out for her mixed-up interpretation of the Garden of Eden, a place in Europe where everyone walks around naked. Even Michael Thibeault–not the play’s strongest actor–has an excellent moment as Dewey kicking up the dust as he asks Darlene out. Such moments are a tribute to Leonard’s attention to minor characters and, apparently, the director’s close work with her actors.