THE WITCHING HOUR

The Diviners came to my attention by winning the prestigious American College Theatre Festival Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. I brought author James Leonard Jr. to New York to participate in the Circle Repertory Company Plays-in-Progress series that spring. Based on the success of that staged reading, I produced The Diviners in New York in 1980.

After it won a Villager Award for Best Play, we revived The Diviners for our summer repertory program in Saratoga Springs, and then ran our "hit" all summer in New York. Wherever it has been seen, The Diviners somehow has illuminated the human need for natural phenomena beyond rational comprehension. I am always deeply moved by its mysterious power. So, reader beware.

Told in a kind of readers' theatre presentational style, The Diviners relates the story of a 14-year-old idiot savant named Buddy Layman. The child is a "diviner" who senses the presence of water, an element so essential to the drought-plagued agrarians in Depression Indiana that his services are considered a blessing. With the aid of a forked stick, Buddy can divine the optimum site to dig for a well, and the play begins with our witnessing such a "witching."

Soon a stranger arrives in the small town of Zion (the play abounds in religious symbolism), a dusty refugee from Kentucky named C.C. Showers. He meets Buddy when he seeks a job at the local garage owned by Buddy's father. Showers discovers that Buddy speaks of himself in the third person, but possesses a simple and natural wisdom. This bonds the two, for Showers is himself an ex-minister who, having renounced his profession, is on the lam from God.

The plot unfolds at a leisurely pace to reveal that Buddy's mother, Sarah, was drowned in the local creek and that Buddy was rescued only after submersion caused brain damage that rendered him retarded, but with an unerring instinct for the presence of water. It also endowed him with a fear of water so fierce that he refuses to bathe or allow himself to be cleansed.

Showers finds himself in a town starved for religious guidance. The church has burned down and the village has been left without a minister for several years. Naturally, the locals are eager for Showers to return to religion and to serve them in their hour of need.

Leonard uses all the forces he has set in motion to suggest that fate is a mixture of blessing and curse. Denying the dogmatism of organized religion, Leonard's parable nevertheless pays homage to those immutable elements of nature that sometimes sculpt in our experience a mysterious message of power, to which awe is the only possible response. This is the "I am that am" of which the Bible speaks.

Leonard's arty poeticism and dour sense of doom are leavened by the warmth, charm and rustic humor of the piece. A slutty teenager named Darlene, required by her religious aunt to recite Bible verses in exchange for dessert, retells the story of the Garden of Eden in the most original and outrageous manner imaginable. "Adam and Eve," she intimates, "were doing it all the time! But that's the way they are over in Europe."

Frankly imitating the dramatic techniques pioneered by Lanford Wilson in The Rimers of Eldritch, Leonard has created an entire town, and captures the authentic voices of farmers and farm hands, the local diner and its patrons, the general store and its gossip.

The humor is sharp and gratifying. Coerced by Goldie, the owner of the diner, into delivering a prayer, Showers eloquently intones, "Thanks for the doughnut."

Leonard also takes wonderful political swipes at Herbert Hoover, the Republican president universally blamed for the Great Depression of the 1930s. Mindful of the contemporary homeless on the streets of our nation, the anti-Republican sentiment depicted in the play now seems so remote it becomes relevant to our own "through the looking glass" reality.

It is difficult to extrapolate a coherent message from this play, but the power of its implications is undeniable. Dramatically, the encounter between Showers and Buddy in which the ex-preacher teaches the panicky child to breathe during a tumultuous rainstorm is the equal of the battle between Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker.

The production at Theater Works is greatly aided by the presence at its center of an electrifying performance by Philip Dawkins as Buddy. Dan'l Sweeney plays his father with quiet dignity and conviction, giving the production the grounding essential for the parable to ring true. Matthew Mazuroski plays Showers with an understated simplicity, but he lacks the charisma the role demands as a magnet for the adulation of the entire community.

The townspeople range from credible to awkward, but only the shrill Judith Olson grates in a thankless role. Wes Martin is homey and effective as the narrating farmer Basil, and Travis Thurman and Tom D'Vorak are amusing, respectively, as a naive swain and a braggart dolt.

The production has been staged by Robyn Allen, one of the Valley's more talented actresses, whose work here betrays a lack of directorial stagecraft. She has chosen syrupy sentimental music to underscore the delicate moments of the action, distracting from the potentially raw power. Actors often seem lost downstage center, with little opportunity to utilize the elegantly evocative setting provided by designers Mazuroski and Gregory Jaye.

Still, Dawkins, who was promising in Phoenix Theatre's production last season of To Kill a Mockingbird, is so riveting and the power of the tale is so intense that The Diviners delivers the resonant mystery that has mesmerized audiences all over the world.

 
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