Switch delivers deep drama of ‘Diviners’ 

By John Lyle Belden

The drama “The Diviners,” by Jim Leonard Jr., is a thoroughly Hoosier story, with Indiana setting and characters, and it premiered at Hanover College in 1980. But it plumbs deep into all of us, and it makes an excellent start for The Switch Theatre in Fishers.

In the last days of the Hoover presidency, with the nation sunk into the Great Depression, we meet a rather extraordinary boy. Buddy (Colin McCabe) is 14 but hasn’t had a bath in at least a decade, ever since nearly drowning in the river, losing his mother to the current as well as a degree of his mental capacity. His fear of water gives him such sensitivity to its presence that he became a natural “diviner,” capable of finding underground streams for wells, and feeling approaching rain even while the sky is clear. 

His father Ferris Layman (Larry Adams) and 16-year-old sister Jennie Mae (Lauren Hall) take care of him, dealing with his impulsive behavior and understanding his odd speech pattern that constantly has him talking in third person. Fellow citizens of the small town of Zion, Indiana, largely accept him as he is, including Goldie (Jean Adams) who runs the local diner and keeps plenty of root beer on hand for Buddy, and Norma Henshaw (Debbie Underwood), who runs the local dry-goods store with her daughter, Darlene (Gloria Merrell).

The neighbors, farmer Basil Bennett and his wife Luella (Dan Flahive and Ginger Home) see Buddy’s abilities as a blessing, Daniel Shock and Mason Tudor play their farmhands, Melvin and Dewey (who is sweet on Darlene). 

Into this world comes C.C. Showers (Earl Campbell), a former preacher from Kentucky who gave up his vocation to be a common laborer. He takes a job at Ferris’s mechanic shop, and takes an interest in helping Buddy. In town, Norma, being deeply religious, sees the man’s arrival as a sign that the local church will be rebuilt, and true to her steel-trap mind, will accept no other explanation.

Directed by Lori Raffel, the performances flesh out the characters well, but the focus is mainly on Buddy. McCabe embodies the role with the skill of someone much older — he is an eighth-grader, but his parents said he has been performing for years. Hall, Merrell, and Tudor also acquit themselves well. The veteran performers wear their roles like comfortable clothes. Campbell does well in spite of a script that leaves many questions about Showers unanswered — this is not his story, but it feels like there is one to be told. 

This play has gentle humor and a Waltons-like folksiness, but its still waters run deep in what is ultimately a tragic story. Performances run through Oct. 6 at The Switch, located inside the Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers. Get information and tickets at theswitchtheatre.com.

 

CCP adds more girl power to ‘Pageant’

By Wendy Carson

I remember in high school we had a huge problem picking out shows because 80 percent of our auditioners were female, up for only about a third of the roles. It seems that this gender disparity has not changed, because when Carmel Community Players held auditions for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” most of the actors who turned up were female. So, in a brilliant casting twist, Director Lori Raffel decided to change the genders of several of the roles, mainly affecting the dreaded “Herdman clan” — it worked out beautifully.

The Herdman children, a grubby, ill-mannered, bunch of bullies, end up taking over all of the major roles in the church Christmas Pageant, much to everyone’s dismay.

Beth Bradley (Dana Hackney), our narrator, relates that her brother Charlie (Sam Vrtismarsh), whose favorite part of church is the fact that it is the one place without torture at the hands of the Herdmans, inadvertently causes this catastrophe to occur.

Stuck in the hospital from an accident, the pageant’s usual director, Mrs. Slocum (Lee Meyers) gives directing duties to Charlie’s mother, Grace (Deb Underwood), including constant phone calls “reassuring and advising” her.

Enter the Herdmans: Ruby (Jayda Glynn in the former “Ralph” role) takes the part of Joseph. Imogene (Maya Davis) usurps the role of Mary, which had always been played by Alice Wendleken (Avery Pierce) and relegating poor Alice to the Angel Choir. Loretta (Delaney Soper in “Leroy” role), Ellie (Ellianna Miles in “Ollie” role) and Claude (Austin Helm) grab the roles of the Wise Men. Rounding out their family unit, little Gladys (Abigail Smith) plays the Angel of the Lord bringing the good news to the shepherds – “Shazam!”

Add to these characters a couple of gossipy church women, Mrs. Armstrong (Ginger Home) and Mrs. McCarthy (Nikki Vrtis); the Pastor (Joe Meyers); and the petulant rest of the pageant cast – Maxine (Sophia McCoskey), Elma (Christina Whisman), and Hallie (Megan Holliday); not to mention Charlie’s ever-suffering Father (Steve Marsh), who keeps trying to get out of attending the pageant in the first place.

How this whole mess turns out, and changes those in attendance, is a Christmas miracle that has warmed audience hearts for years all over the country. It just looks a little different here.

While the cast on the whole does an admirable job, a few standouts that must be mentioned: Holliday’s dance solo was a delightful display of budding talent. Hackney did a nice job shifting her focus between telling the story and trying to survive the insanity all around her. Pierce excellently portrays her character’s “Holier than Thou” attitude throughout. Davis adds depth as Imogene finds connection with The Virgin’s plight. However, it is Smith’s turn as the fiercely indomitable Gladys Herdman that shines the brightest. I expect we will be seeing a lot more of her talents in the future.

There is one weekend left of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” through Dec. 9. So, gather the whole family, scoot over to the Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St. in Fishers, and enjoy a fun Christmas show. Get info and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

Also, make sure you bring a few extra dollars to purchase one of the lovely pasta angels handcrafted by the troupe. They are quite lovely and will make a wonderful accent to your tree for years to come.

Before CCP shuffles off: a bold ‘Buffalo’

By John Lyle Belden

A quick note for those who haven’t heard: Carmel Community Players has lost its lease at the Clay Terrace shopping center, where “American Buffalo” is their last play on that stage, and is in the process of finding a new home. The next production, the musical “Ragtime,” will be presented at the Ivy Tech theater in Noblesville in April. For more details see carmelplayers.org.

Famed stage and screen writer David Mamet once said that the key to writing drama is to present a character wanting something, then placing obstacles in the way of him getting it. (Apparently swearing a lot is important, too.)

In Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” on CCP’s Clay Terrace stage for one more weekend, Donny (Larry Adams) really wants a valuable coin. It was just another trinket at his junk shop, but some slick buyer came in and bought it from him at a surprisingly high price – now Donny is sure it was worth a lot more, and that this man has other priceless coins as well. Faithful but mentally challenged Bobby (Daniel Shock) is eager to do “the job” for Donny, and not just be the lookout, but Teach (Earl Campbell) insists that the burglary be entrusted to him. Donny agrees, but also wants another accomplice – but can you trust a man who possibly cheated you at cards the night before?

Under the direction of Lori Raffel, this production presents the Mamet formula as a study in complex and conflicted characters. Donny wrestles with his pain at feeling he was taken advantage of, his feelings of responsibility for Bobby, and the need to get one good high-dollar score – Adams works all these subtleties well. Campbell is sharp as a jerk who talks big, but is no fool. Bobby is a cypher, making one unsure what he does and doesn’t know, and does and doesn’t understand – and why is he always asking for money? – Shock is spot-on in his delivery.

It’s that simple, and that complex. Add in some F-words and you’ve got classic Mamet, ending this chapter of the CCP’s ongoing story on a very strong note. Get tickets while you can: call 317-815-9387 or visit the website.

Hilarious glimpse into the dark and ditzy side of Hollywood

By John Lyle Belden

Playwright Neil Labute’s talent for showing how nasty allegedly civilized people can be to each other is on hilarious display in his comedy, “The Money Shot,” at Theatre on the Square through March 4.

It’s a pleasant evening in the Hollywood Hills when two movie stars meet at one’s home to discuss with their significant others the imminent filming of a love scene. Aging action hero Steve (Earl Campbell) is star and executive producer of the movie being made; friend and Oscar-nominated actress Karen (Sarah McGee) is the love interest. Steve is married to 20-something aspiring actress Missy (Lauren Hall) while Karen’s spouse is Bev (Lisa Marie Smith), an assistant editor on other major films.

As they converse, we get to know this foursome: Steve is a callous ass who can be aggressively ignorant, then skillfully switch the subject when corrected. Karen is a sort of Hollywood holier-than-thou devoted to numerous causes and opportunities to brand herself. Missy is a living embodiment of the stereotypical ditz. Bev is well-educated and easily the smartest person in the room, but gets combative the moment something stupid or insensitive is said – therefore spending the entire 90 minutes of this play in an emotional minefield.

After numerous arguments – generating everything from but-gusting hilarity to jaw-dropping did-he-just-say-that moments – the movie stars get to the topic at hand: The director wants their love scene to not just be steamy, but to also contain actual sex acts. The spouses are asked to agree, or at least veto specific bodily maneuvers. This results in the most bizarre list ever made, as well as a high-stakes wrestling match (yes, actual, by-the-rules wrestling).

If this sounds like something that must be seen to be believed, I heartily agree. See it (but don’t bring the kids; there’s no nudity but plenty of blue and descriptive language)!

Campbell does an incredible job of playing an incredible jerk. McGee swings from inspiring to smug to vulnerable with ease. Their Steve and Karen are easily comparable to various real-world stars, adding to the fun of seeing these portrayals.

Hall gives glimpses of Missy not quite being as dumb as she looks, especially at the film’s climax (pun intended) when she truly perceives these characters’ power dynamic. And Smith, aided by a bold hairstyle choice, disappears into her character, delivering an awesome performance that I don’t want to elaborate too much on, lest I accidentally offend and get beaten up by Bev.

Directed by TOTS boss Lori Raffel, this show on the cozy confines of the Second Stage could easily sell out, so call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org. TOTS is at 627 Massachusetts Ave. in downtown Indy.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

A difficult ‘Winter’

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

Being a caregiver for a parent with Alzheimers or a similar condition is one of the most difficult jobs imaginable. With every struggle, you tell yourself, “It’s not about me!” yet you are in your own kind of pain.

In “Blackberry Winter,” playing through Nov. 19 at Theatre on the Square, Vivienne (Gari Williams) speaks to the audience about her caring for a mother who once made the world’s best coconut cake, but in these days would hardly recognize the kitchen.

The play is by Steve Yockey, whose dramas “Octopus” and “Wolves” have played on Indy stages. Those works dealt with stresses of fear and distrust in regards to intimate relationships. In this show, relationship struggles involve memories, objects and beloved family members.

Yockey’s style of including fantasy elements with animal metaphors also comes into play here, as Vivienne occupies her mind by coming up with a “creation myth” for Alzheimers. As the disease has no happy ending, she warns, don’t expect one to her story.

To embody the myth/fable, two of the main animals of the forest come to the stage: Gray Mole (Dan Flahive), who finds happiness simply by digging in the dirt, and optimistic, idealistic White Egret (Chelsea Anderson) who is sure she has found a way to make life better for all the denizens of the woods – at least the ones she sees above ground.

Their story is told in three parts, as Vivienne weaves in more of her monologue. She speaks of how in the mental clouds of this disease, what is real and true becomes blurred by confabulation and “comforting fictions.” We learn the significance of the scarves, the iron, the horse and the trowel, and why Vivienne is “a terrible person” – it’s not just because she fills the swear-bank.

And we see how White Egret’s wonderful idea goes horribly wrong.

This play is thought-provoking and challenging, especially if a relative with dementia is in your life. But in that case, this can also be comforting from shared experience as the spotlight is firmly on the caregiver’s role. Directed by Lori Raffel, this is an excellent glimpse into a difficult subject, with great performances delivered with gentle humor by the on-stage trio.

Find TOTS at 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis; call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

CCP brings fun in the ‘Park’

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

Some days, all you need from a stage play is just an easy-going fun comedy. Maybe something by Neil Simon? Then head on up to the Carmel Community Players stage in Clay Terrace for its production of Simon’s first hit, “Barefoot in the Park,” playing weekends through Oct. 16.

In the winter of 1963 in New York, a free-spirited new bride, Corie (played by Lauren White Hall), has chosen an oddly-shaped fifth-floor walkup for a first apartment for her and her husband, Paul (Nicholas Barnes), a rather straight-laced young lawyer. It’s not what he would have wanted, but out of love for Corie, Paul tries to make do with the living arrangements – broken skylight and all. Making the situation even more interesting are visits by Corie’s mother Ethel (Bridget Schlebecker) and eccentric upstairs neighbor Victor (Will Pullins). A horizon-expanding evening with the four enjoying drinks and a dinner out proves fateful for all.

Hall is effervescent and charming, and Barnes ably plays the more reserved but still likeable half of the duo, making it believable that these two opposites did attract one another. Schlebecker and Pullins are natural scene-stealers in two of the more fun roles of the Simon repertoire. And Joe Meyers hits the right note as the telephone repair man whose timely advice helps fix more than a broken line.

Director Lori Raffel (also executive director at Theatre on the Square) found a fun solution to the problem of the set change between the first two scenes – a time-consuming transformation of the apartment from bare to fully-furnished. Under half-light, the cast brings out the bed, tables, couch, etc., to a dance routine. Raffel said she even got help from a member of Dance Kaleidoscope in arranging the actors’ steps with minimal improvisation. The result is almost as entertaining as the play itself.

As for the play, “funny,” “romantic” and “satisfying” are words too easy to throw around, but they fit so well here, to the greatest extent of their meaning.

Put on your shoes and head up to the top of Carmel. Info and tickets at 317-815-9387 or www.carmelplayers.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.