P M & L’s 58th season has been impressive, particularly the scope and quality of their productions. Their current dramatic production, “The Diviners,” is an infrequently performed play, largely due to its subject matter and colloquial dialogue, but it is nonetheless intriguing.
Sensitively directed by Casey Audrain, “The Diviners” is an emotional slice of Americana, reminiscent of the plays “Our Town,” “Grapes of Wrath,” and “Of Mice and Men.” Set in the Great Depression era of the 1930s, it takes place in the small fictional Southern Indiana town of Zion.
“The Diviners” enfolds the tragic tale of Buddy Layman, a mentally challenged, sweet natured adolescent. Buddy is a diviner, gifted with the ability to find subterranean water, predict much-needed rain, and who also has a horrific fear of water due to an accident that that killed his mother.
Written by native Indianan Jim Leonard Jr. with the assistance of the American College Theater Festival in 1980, the play opens and closes with elegies by two townspeople; in this production, strongly rendered by Jim Behr as farmer Basil, and touchingly by Matthew Craig as farm hand Dewey.
The plot is the memory of time leading up to a climatic event, a tragedy involving Buddy. We are introduced to C.C. Showers, a disenchanted stranger passing through Zion, looking for work and food. C.C. becomes Buddy’s mentor and also sets forth a chain of events when C.C.’s past is revealed.
There are beautiful scenes in this production. The chemistry between Toby Jaros’ Buddy and Ryan Bavido’s C.C. Showers is sincere, obvious, and strong. Their heaven/why won’t Jesus give her back/flying scenes are exquisite. Bavido and Jaros carry the play on their backs; Bavido is every second the charismatic, sympathetic, and reluctant preacher to Jaros’ innocent, challenged boy.
These are juicy but tough roles for any actor, and these two deliver consistently. The zealous, repressed, quirky townspeople are superbly portrayed by Tracey Lanman (a McHenry native), Chris Heilgeist, and Chris Jones with great support from Lily Johnson and Nate Kirk.
Wonder Lake resident Christopher Plotts (he of the magnificent voice) portrays Buddy’s short-tempered father with understanding, heartbreak, and humor while Emily Ptaszek as Buddy’s sister is a sweet and demure 16 year old. Appearance wise, Audrain cast well. You do believe these people are from rural Indiana.
Don’t let the intensity prevent you from attending. Leonard has provided some balancing humor and even poetry in his play. The simple, clean set designed by Audrain and David Zawrotny works extremely well on P M & L’s stage with Guy Finley’s projections and Mark Audrain’s lighting.
Lindsey Badtke’s costumes are perfect for the era, and the appearance of a classic Schwann bike lends legitimacy, if not the right to be a character. There is only one flaw with this production. Buddy’s fears need to be ramped up. In one particular scene his father says Buddy’s screams will “sound like a whisper” if he is made to bathe. There aren’t screams; it’s clear he dislikes water, but Buddy is supposed to be terrified of all things water.
Chicago Reader critic Albert Williams compared “The Diviners” to American Gothic. He wasn’t far off. In the canon of American theater, “The Diviners” is, to paraphrase Willliams, an exploration of “deep dramatic waters.” See it.
• Regina M. Belt-Daniels continues to do what she loves best: travel, theater, and teach. She is a happily working actress and director who currently serves on the It’s Showtime Huntley and RCLPC Boards; a veteran director of over 35 shows, she will be directing “Morning’s At Seven” for RCLPC productions this summer.
If you Go
Through April 14
Two acts with intermission
8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Pallets, Masque and Lyre Theater
877 N. Main St. Antioch
Tickets: $15 and $18