Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Theater review: The Diviners at Arts Fifth Avenue in Fort Worth
A moving play of faith and truth that weaves humor with tragedy.
Jim Leonard, Jr.'s The Diviners (presented by L.I.P. Service at Arts Fifth Avenue in Fort Worth through July 1) is set in the fictional town of Zion, Indiana during the Great Depression. The play begins and ends with elegies describing events leading to a local tragedy. The body of the play is the memory of events leading to the conclusion. The Diviners is filled with biblical imagery, from the townspeople's disciple-like devotion to the display of the healing power of water.
James Lash, credited as "Guy in the Chair" plays guitar and sings spirituals such as "It's Beginning to Rain" and "Blessed Assurance" before the show. He opens the show with "Amazing Grace." The set and scenic designs by Jason Leyva and Lily Stapp-Courtney are simple and effective in representing the quaint town. The set is fragmented in style with two screen doors held by partial door frames on opposite sides of the stage and a wood-planked floor that facilitates a plethora of locations, both indoors and out. The background is a large paneled painting of a pale prairie horizon. The entire production is presented in a sepia palette, including the clothing of the self-costumed cast.
The play centers on Buddy Layman, a mentally-challenged teen whose spirit touches everyone he meets. His unique condition is both a blessing and a curse. He can predict rain and can divine water from hidden aquifers but is terrified of being in water. Despite his incessant itching, he refuses to bathe. One day a stranger named C.C. Showers passes by the Layman house looking for work. Immediately C.C. and Buddy hit it off and C.C. finds himself becoming Buddy's mentor. Leonard’s script adds challenges to actors who play Buddy. One of Buddy's most striking characteristics is that he speaks in the third person. When watching this play, you might cringe at the uncomfortably fine line in presenting Buddy's mental handicap. While at times Zach Leyva's lisping and undue exuberance seem unsuitably comical, his performance never loses tact. Leyva's facial expressions and physical mannerisms are diverse and impressive. The script makes for plenty of laughable moments centered on Buddy's simplicity but there are special moments in the play in which he becomes introverted and serene. It is in these moments that Zach Leyva’s character proves dynamic. In the end, Leyva's likability and his honest performance as the innocent boy who faces tragedy will bring you to tears.
C.C. and Buddy are played by real life father and son Jason Leyva and Zach Leyva. Their scenes together are particularly touching. They have a real connection with one another that is beautiful to see. The scene where Buddy asks C.C. about angels and asks if his mother is in the sky pulls at the heartstrings of anyone who has lost someone. Jason Leyva is a natural on stage. As C.C. he is smooth-talking and laid back. He is charming as the former preacher who desperately wants to leave the past behind. That’s hard for him to do when everyone in town is buzzing about his assumed spiritual abilities. While he has turned his back on preaching, it is obvious he unconsciously seeks to heal. He finds an outlet in his unusual friendship with Buddy as he tries to ease the boy's fear of water.
David Plybon is Buddy's widowed father Ferris Layman. Plybon is convincing as a concerned father trying to raise two difficult children on his own. In this tragedy we really feel the great loss through Plybon's reactions. Angela Horn is Buddy's protective sister, Jennie Mae, who is strong but reserved. Horn is perfect for the role and she has great chemistry with both Buddy and C.C. Jennie Mae and C.C. have an attraction that quickly ends due to their difference in age. Their scenes together are filled with tension. They are cute albeit awkward, together.
Jenny Tucker plays the town's biggest Bible-thumper, Norma. While she means well, Norma is quite ignorant. When she finds out about C.C.'s past, she is determined to get him back behind the pulpit. Tucker represents Norma well. Her fanaticism and judgmental interaction with other characters is hilarious. At one point she tells her niece Darlene, "I can't take you to a baptizin', drenched with sin!" Libby Hawkins Roming plays rebellious, boy-crazy Darlene. She is funny when she recites what her aunt has taught her about the Bible. She enthusiastically shares her misguided knowledge with Jennie Mae. Both girls gossip about the dreamy preacher.
Goldie, played by Judy Sizemore, is the owner of a local diner. She gives C.C. special treatment and tells him how excited she would be to see the church rebuilt, as well as all the Sunday customers it would bring. Local farmer Basil Bennett and his wife Luella, played by David Ellis and Barrie Alguire, are also stricken by C.C.'s presence. Ellis is a stand-out actor. In his comforting scratchy voice, he wisely describes events in the play. He makes us laugh when he gripes about machines taking away farmers’ jobs and as he describes the "fancy new manure-spreader" with some choice words. Alguire is adorable as Basil's wife. Her performance is also very natural and she executes her many humorous lines perfectly. The Bennetts' two farm hands, Melvin and Dewey, are played by Tyler Cochran and Zeke Branim. A couple of dorky do-nothings, they mostly stand around fussing with each other. Melvin is a self-proclaimed "veteran of the U. S. of A!", though he
may have only gone through two rounds of basic training, and Dewey has his sights on Darlene. It's funny when Melvin gives Dewey pointers on flirting.
Director Bill Sizemore does a wonderful job with this piece. He collaborates beautifully with the designers. In one scene, it is night time and the lights are low. He splits the action between C.C. and Ferris outside and Buddy and Jennie Mae inside. The final scene incorporates interesting technical work. Sound and Lighting Designer Branson White uniquely creates the feeling of being underwater using blue lights and muffled sounds. His designs really stand out. In fact, the only non-sepia color in the play is his blue lighting. The action on stage freezes during these underwater moments and suspense is created.
The Diviners is a moving play of faith and truth that weaves humor with tragedy. The characters are simple but their stories complex. This production is touching right down to its shocking conclusion.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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