The Diviners by Jim Leonard Jr. reads like a story told from memory by an acquaintance. Moments are revealed like so many recollections, some vivid, some sketchy – but full of funny, earthy and tragic senses. CCP’s production of the play, which opened last night at Carmel Community Playhouse in Clay Terrace, is a good reflection of that telling and those senses. Danny Russel has directed his cast to give as natural and simple a rendering of the script as is possible – on a colorless, featureless set of platforms – with dimmer than normal lighting and just the hints of sounds. The result is a two hour journey with a touch of calm sadness and nostalgia.

Mr. Russel’s naturalist direction makes sense for this tale of a boy from an Indiana town in the early years of the Depression. The sense of 1930’s Indiana seems to be captured well in the script and in the portrayals. But also, that sense is captured in the uncomplicated rhythm of the characters and in what they care about and how they feel. It is a low keyed atmosphere that we find ourselves in as we imagine the tale unwinding. So low keyed that at times we must endure a dull moment or two – but that too reflects this time and place and these people – and indeed real life itself.

Taking into account the various experience levels of the cast members – the performances are full and very true to the simple style adopted by the director. The townspeople seem genuinely humble and hopeful. Jacob Landwerlen, Ben Billand, Debbie Underwood and Kristen Wilson are all very effective in their scenes, creating a strong sense of the times. Kaylis Dyer plays Darlene, the bad-girl want-to-be, with a twinkle and just enough sass to get her shaded hopes across. Holly Baginski is true to life as the zealous dry goods shopkeeper Norma. Her religious fervor is palatable and well-portrayed. Another standout is John Vanderplough’s Basil – as true to any Hoosier farmer I have ever met, with a down-to-earth outlook and a kindly knowledge of the world and of what in that world he disagrees with.

Tom Doman is effective and believable as Ferris, the boy’s dad. Seemingly a theatre newcomer, he does a fine job projecting the laid-back, sensible qualities of the sad widower father. Doman’s emotional remembrance of his lost wife is a well-crafted piece of acting and showed a lot of talent lies beneath any inexperience. Ferris’s daughter, Jennie Mae, is handled well by Tempiellen Knuteson. Always impressive, Ms. Knuteson makes her turns on stage a series of light, effective and genuine moments.

Tempiellen Knuteson as Jennie Mae and Cody Fenimore as Buddy in CCP’s “The Diviners”

Caleb Adkins plays C.C. Showers, a “runaway” preacher who befriends the boy and who must come to terms with the townsfolk who see him only in the light of his former profession. Adkins gives a perfect tone to the role – especially in the lightness with which he deals with the troubled boy – being a friend, leading him toward solutions – and also in his sense of being a troubled man himself, having turned his back on preaching.

Cody Fenimore, plays Buddy – the boy who lost his mother to the river and who fears all water while ironically having an affinity for finding wells and predicting storms. In a very challenging role, the young Mr. Fenimore overcomes a lot of hurdles and gives a knockout performance. Although inexperience shows in some acting choices, I am sure director Russel felt blessed to have such a capable seventh grader join his troupe and develop the full sized characterization that I saw this opening night. Fenimore shows he has a good understanding of what he needed to convey in this role. His vocal qualities, his physical presence, his emotional portrayals most always fit the troubled Buddy’s demeanor extremely well.

Were there points to criticize in the production? Surely some – there was an unevenness in energy or of tempo at times, a short period of mumbling at the start of the play, small gaffs in dialogue which surely do occur in any live performance. But for the most part this is a well-crafted, well thought out, well portrayed story. Mr. Russel has a wonderfully full knowledge of theatre and of the many “tricks” of the trade. He works the audience, understanding that that is the only true mission of our story-telling in theatre. He works to create a lasting impression in the retelling of this tale and he is successful – right down to a longish pause before the second act begins and to the imagination he asks us to engage with his staging and his set.

Don’t miss this worthwhile evening of imagination. The Diviners continues at CCP Thursdays through Sundays until June 24th. Go to http://www.carmelplayers.org for more information.

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