Wednesday, January 20, 2010

'Two Strangers, The Rain, and the River'

The cold, wet winter that we have endured since December 19 sent me looking for means to feel warm and dry. I found it in a review of two plays performed in Charlottesville during the summer of 2001, about eight and a half years ago. Here is what I wrote in The Metro Herald on July 27, 2001.  (This article has not previously appeared in an easily accessible on-line format.)

Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
Special to The Metro Herald

It has been said that all dramatic literature fits into one of two categories: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.

The archetype of the first category may be Huckleberry Finn in all its incarnations, including the musical Big River. But it also includes films as different as It Happened One Night and Some Like it Hot or plays like— if you take “journey” in a metaphorical sense—Pygmalion and its musical offspring, My Fair Lady, in which Eliza Doolittle journeys from flower girl to lady in three hours plus intermission. Waiting for Godot is about a journey that stands still.

In the second category, the presence of the stranger in town usually results in changes to the town itself, and its people. The town becomes physically or spiritually transformed. This is a common theme in musicals, from The Music Man to The Witches of Eastwick.

Two plays recently produced across town from each other in Charlottesville share this theme: The Diviners, by James Leonard, Jr., and The Rainmaker, by N. Richard Nash. Both plays are also related in that, on the surface, they are about the need for water.

The Rainmaker is a professional and an amateur theatre perennial, best known from the 1956 film version starring Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn. It was also turned into a musical, 110 in the Shade, by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (creators of The Fantasticks and I Do! I Do!) with a book by the playwright, N. Richard Nash (who also wrote the screenplay). Nash, who died last December at the age of 87, built his reputation largely on this single, oft-produced work. (He also wrote a teleplay of The Rainmaker that was produced in 1982.) As such, it fits in quite nicely with Heritage Repertory Theatre’s mission of bringing familiar works to a new audience each summer.

By contrast, The Diviners, by Jim Leonard, Jr., is a relatively new play, first developed and performed by the Hanover College Theater Group with the support of the American College Theatre Festival, and first produced professionally by the Circle Repertory Company in 1980. Still, it has become remarkably popular, especially among college theatre groups. A Web search turns up more than 560 hits, almost every one of them a reference to a college production of The Diviners in the past six years or so. While not particularly cutting edge or avant garde, its tight focus and emotional impact make it a natural for Live Arts Summer Theater Festival.

Both plays offer a slice of Americana. The Rainmaker is set on a ranch in some unspecified western state in the 1920s. (We know it’s not Kansas or Nebraska.) The ranch and its neighbors have been suffering from a drought. The Diviners is set more identifiably in the small town of Zion, Indiana, in the midst of the Great Depression. While there is no sense of dryness in the air, the search for water and the coming of rain are key elements in the plot.

The main characters in The Rainmaker are the Curry family – father H.C., sons Noah and Jim, and daughter Lizzie. Lizzie is what used to be called an “old maid,” and her father and brothers are anxious to get her married off. When the play opens, she has just returned from a trip to visit some relatives in another town, with the hope that one of her cousins might marry her. That having failed, H.C., Jim, and Noah pay a call on their town’s deputy sheriff, File, and invite him to dinner—essentially setting him up on a date with Lizzie. Into this mix arrives Bill Starbuck, a fast-talking conman who promises to produce a rainstorm within 24 hours, in return for $100 (at that time, a large amount of money).

In the second act, Starbuck intervenes in the Curry family’s quarrel about Lizzie’s future and takes Lizzie into hand romantically, assuring her that she is pretty as well as intelligent. With her confidence bolstered, she is able to make a choice between Starbuck the drifter and File the steadfast.

HRT’s production of The Rainmaker has some excellent performances, with some drawbacks: All the actors could have benefited from a dialect coach, since there is little consistency in the way they talk. The location of the play may be unspecified, but the Sheriff and File sound like they’re from Texas, while Lizzie seems to come from the Upper Midwest, and her brothers speak with the cadences of Generation X’ers from the mid-Atlantic region.

As Lizzie, Andrea Wollenberg is just a bit too pretty to convince us that she’s a hopeless case when it comes to marriage. She does stand taller than her siblings and presents a somewhat “mannish” appearance, but she’s not the “plain” (read: homely) spinster that her brother Noah makes her out to be. She does convince us that she’s a strong woman, however, in the tradition of Katharine Hepburn before her.

As the brooding Noah, Daniel Perez gives a quite different sort of performance than he did in Art earlier in HRT’s season. While Yvan was manic and neurotic, Noah walks around with a black cloud hanging over him. If he could salt that cloud, their ranch would have no problems with drought. His care for his sister comes out in a mean-spirited way, and when he bites, the audience reacts with horror.

Jonathan Walsh sparkles as Jim, the younger, more playful brother. He has a minor subplot involving a local girl, and his transformation, encouraged by the stranger Starbuck’s presence, is the most clear-cut among the characters. Walsh is the sort of actor who could easily be found in the pages of a teen fan magazine, with a countenance that belongs on a weekly TV sitcom. He exudes both confidence and energy.

Director David Shelton has done a good job in assembling the elements for a solid production of a familiar play. Yet The Rainmaker cries out to be done in musical form. Perhaps it would have been a better choice for HRT to present 110 in the Shade. It would be interesting to see the two versions of the same story for comparison.

The Diviners, as directed by Toby Emert, already has music, but not in the sense of a musical play. Instead, it is framed—bookended—by gospel songs performed by the entire cast as a choir. The songs do nothing to advance the action or create characters; instead, they set the scene for us: a small town in Indiana that for 10 years has been without church or pastor. Into this situation arrives C.C. Showers (Chris Estey), who has, for unstated reasons, quit his job as a preacher in his home state of Kentucky and hitchhiked into Zion looking for honest work.

What he finds when he gets there is Buddy Layman (Alex Davis), a 14-year-old idiot savant with a talent for finding water underground (“divining”) and for predicting rainstorms. Years earlier, Buddy’s mother had drowned (and he almost had done the same), and as a result, Buddy the Diviner has an incontrovertible aversion to water.

Th play consists of what seem to be unrelated sketches about the town and its people. Each scene, however, adds more to our knowledge of what came before, and what it might be that afflicts Buddy and gives him his “talent.”

In the key role of Buddy, Alex Davis gives the most remarkable performance I have seen by a juvenile on any stage in years. In a role that could give itself over to histrionics and eccentricities, Davis approaches his character with nuance and subtlety that one would think are beyond his years. (Davis is 15 years old himself.) He gives us an immature boy formed by the mind of a mature actor. He does this both vocally and physically. His wide eyes and bright smile tell us that Buddy is an innocent, and through small—not grand, not hysterical—gestures, like scratching his nose or blowing his hair away from his eyes, he demonstrates a unique understanding of a troubled yet, under the grime and the neuroticism, normal teenager. If this performance is any indication—and one would need to see him in another role to know if he has a broad range—Alex Davis has a great acting career ahead of him.

The acting in this production of The Diviners is competent and, in some cases, strikingly understated. Shawn Fisher, who plays Buddy’s father, Ferris, does not seem to be acting at all. His conversations are as I natural as anyone might have with the local garage owner (which Ferris is). He moves and talks as one would expect a single father in his mid-thirties to move and talk.
Thematically, The Diviners might be seen as either profoundly religious or deeply antireligious. The townspeople seem to have lived quiet yet moral lives in the absence of organized religion in the ten years since their church burned down and their minister left. Yet tragedy ensues when they become overly excited about the arrival of a new preacher, Showers, who resists the role they want to impose on him. Oddly enough, none of the citizens of Zion—is there significance in that name?—seems disturbed that their town lacks a physician. (Melvin [Michael Allenby], a farmer, provides folk diagnoses and folk remedies.) Yet the absence of a preacher strikes at their collective heart.

One of the lovely things about The Diviners is that the secondary characters are drawn with care and distinction. Individuals who in an- other play might just be undifferentiated “happy villagers” each have three dimensions such as Darlene (Deb Stockwell) a rebellious adolescent who down deep is still the “good girl” that her Aunt Norma (Jeannie Jones) wants her to be. Jennie Mae (Alice Reed), Buddy’s sister, bears a remarkable resemblance to Alex Davis, creating a certain tie between them that is re-emphasized by Reed’s sensitive attention to how a loving older Sister actually behaves toward what we would now call a “special needs” child.

How I have managed to go for more than 20 years without seeing The Diviners is a mystery to me, but this production really struck gold, and I plan to go back and see it again before its run ends. To give some indication as to the emotional impact of this play, at the closing of both the first and second acts, the audience, after giving appropriate applause, sat in silence, as though they were in church, rather than engage in the chatter one expects during intermission or as people exit a theatre. Their mood was contemplative. This, if nothing else, is a tribute to the director and his players and this play.

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