By John Lyle Belden
Jim Leonard Jr.’s “The Diviners,” a snapshot of Depression-era Indiana with supernatural overtones, is presented through Sunday by Casey Ross Productions at Carmel Theatre Company (former CCP stage), 15 1st Ave. in downtown Carmel.
The story centers on Buddy Layman (played by Pat Mullen), a youth rendered simple-minded years ago by his near-drowning in the local river, an incident that took his mother’s life. Now a teen, he never bathes and is so afraid of water that he can sense rain hours before anyone even sees clouds, as well as feel it below the ground, allowing him to “divine” locations for wells.
He is cared for by his older sister Jennie Mae (Allyson Womack) and father Ferris (Zach Stonerock), the local engine and bicycle mechanic. Neighboring farmers Basil and Luella Bennett (David Mosedale and Kathryn Comer Paton) see Buddy’s abilities as an asset, as their lives are so tied to the land. In the play’s first scenes, Bennett’s farmhands, Dewey and Melvin (Johnny Mullins and Tyler Gordon) witness Buddy’s “divining” first-hand.
Into this world comes a young drifter, C.C. Showers (Davey Pelsue), looking for work. Ferris hires him, even though the man’s only job experience had been as a preacher, a job he had taken more out of family obligation than spiritual calling, and thus felt no motivation to continue. Showers also takes an interest in Buddy, seeing him more as a troubled person than a human water-detector. In town, they (and we) meet the remaining members of the cast, Bible-thumping shopkeeper Norma Henshaw and her headstrong daughter Darlene (Paige Scott and Heather R. Owens) as well as Goldie Short (Audrey Stauffer Stonerock), who runs the local diner; her bottled soda is about the only liquid Buddy will touch.
Norma’s desire to see the local long-destroyed church rebuilt has her see Showers’ every word and deed as a sign that the man will return to the ministry for their town. His actions to help Buddy with a persistent skin condition become much larger in her eyes, leading to tragic circumstances.
The cast, under the direction of Casey Ross, bring their dramatic A-game. Mullen earns praise for not overselling Buddy’s condition, earnestly delivering the boy’s frustratingly third-person speech and making him feel real. We can see Pelsue’s tattoos peeking out of his shirt sleeves, yet still believe he is a 1930s Kentucky preacher; this is his best performance yet. Mr. Stonerock is convincingly paternal; you can see the zeal gleaming in Scott’s eyes; and Mosedale is rock solid.
To be honest, there are no weak performances at all, which helps keep this play above its potential for cliché or caricature. For comparison, consider the best “Waltons” episode you ever saw, and add water.
(Also posted at The Word.)