"The Diviners" is a title that conjures an image of seeking water, but at another level divining considers what is holy and sacred. Water and religion serve as metaphor and question in the production currently underway at Stage 3 Theatre.
In the mythical town of Zion during the Great Depression, Buddy Layman (Kii Kellerman) is damaged goods having survived a near drowning during which his mother dies. Buddy's grip on the world is tenuous, drawn as he is more to birds in flight than the earth upon which his unwashed feet walk. Buddy is deathly afraid of water and won't bathe, but he has been gifted with the ability to witch wells and divine weather-rain in particular.
C.C. Showers, played by Colton Dennis, emanates from a long line of preachers. In a crisis of faith, Showers turns his back on the ministry to join the ranks of Depression men walking the road, working for food and a place to sleep. That's how he arrives in Zion to ask Buddy's father, Ferris Layman (Mike Moon), for work.
Bereft of a preacher, the people of Zion clamor for Showers to fill the spot. Instead, he pursues a different calling: befriending Buddy and discovering a desire to heal the boy of the relentless itch from which he suffers.
In this way, playwright Jim Leonard Jr. sets the stage for a theatrical exploration of loneliness and faith that weaves humor with tragedy.
The journey of "The Diviners" is like the flow of large, slow river, meandering, gurgling, and swirling with the warm minutia that make up life in a small town.
This is a fragile story that requires a spark. Director Don Bilotti ignites that spark in performances from the fine cast he has pulled together to people the town of Zion.
Each actor is well-suited to roles that epitomize the faces of the time and context.
Certainly the most challenging role is Buddy, a challenge to which Kii Kellerman rises masterfully. This is a must-see play if for no other reason than getting a look at this 13-year-old actor who pulls emotional vulnerability from depths not usually available to one so young. The character speaks of himself in third person, echoes the words of others with an eerie half-understanding, and plods among the people of the town listening to a voice only he hears calling.
Kellerman embodies Buddy so convincingly that it was disconcerting to find him playfully bobbing and gesturing like a normal kid in the lobby after the show - his face still dirt-smeared.
Colton Dennis lends a rough, reticence to Showers - a near angry stance - which lightens considerably when he is opposite Buddy. It's as if Showers finds his own troubled self in the boy. If he can help Buddy regain his faith and sense of safety, he too will be saved.
Dennis brings the conflicted man to life by carefully crafting a two-sided persona - gently instructive with Buddy and sorely resentful with the townspeople.
Except, that is, with Jennie Mae Layman, Buddy's sister, played by Catelin Moody. Jennie Mae is highly protective of her brother, so during her first encounter with Showers, she is guarded and aloof. Moody plays the guardian role well, slipping from crisp and haughty with Showers to kind and vigilant with Buddy.
When Showers comes to Buddy's aid, Jennie Mae is appreciative, which kindles a youthful crush on the man. Moody depicts teenage infatuation well, revealing a lighter, playful side to Jennie Mae. And Showers is ever the gentleman in his mannerly rebuff.
The children's father, Ferris Layman, also bumps into Showers first with mistrust that eventually turns to warm regard. Mike Moon's portrayal of the elder Layman is rough and kindhearted with the kind of authenticity that turns a vulgar exclamation into an affectionate slap on the back.
The segments between Ferris Layman and Basil Bennett, played by Cam Deen, are delightful. Deen and Moon provide a sturdy backbone for the show with a fluid, folksy banter that gives the production a solid sense of time. Basil also serves as a quasi-narrator, with Deen providing just the right tone of calm sadness.
Basil's wife Luella Bennett is played by the always hilarious Susan Michael. One of the great laughable moments involves Luella telling the story of a bike accident in which she is rescued by Showers. Michael's delivery of this story filled with religious misconstrual is spot on.
Susan Chapman plays the Bible-thumping Norma Henshaw, who leads the pursuit to make Showers the town's pastor. Chapman lends sincerity and hilarity to Norma's fanaticism and judgmental pronouncements.
She tells her neice Darlene Henshaw, played by Brie Miller, "I can't take you to a baptizing drenched in sin!"
Miller plays the teenage flirt with sweet sass and twinkling humor, especially when she relates her misguided understanding of her aunt's Bible lessons.
The female supporting cast is rounded out by Emily Graham as Goldie Short, owner of the Zion diner. In keeping with other characterization in "The Diviners," Graham soft-pedals brazen impudence when joining the other women in wooing Showers.
Then there is the clumsy farmhand duo of Melvin Wilder (John Hosek) and Dewey Maples (Glenn Meadows). Hosek and Meadows endow slapstick punching and jabbing routines with Abbott and Costello gusto.
Staging and technical work include many subtle and not so subtle touches. Ron Cotnam's set is spare and impressionistic in a sepia palette with wooden boxes serving many functions.
Costumes by Linda Glick are likewise simple with overalls for the men and mostly quiet frocks for the women - though Darlene and Jennie Mae get spiffed up a bit for romantic purpose.
The sound of storms, the river, and old-timey hymns rumble through the tiny theater now and again. Against this earthy backdrop, Matt Leamy's lighting is moody and dim, engaging the imagination and making the audience lean into the low-key atmosphere.
The reward comes in the very last scene when the lighting shifts from sepia to blue and a spectacle of startling beauty and anguish flows forth. Bilotti makes sure the meandering journey of "The Diviners" leaves a lasting impression.
"The Diviners" plays through July 28 at 208 S. Green St. in downtown Sonora.
For tickets, call 536-1778 or visit www.stage3.org.