Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
Director – René Moreno
Scenic Design – Rodney Dobbs
Lighting Design – Adam Chamberlin
Costume Design – Barbara C. Cox
Sound Design – Mason York
Buddy Layman – Brandon Kinard
Jennie Mae Layman – Zoë Kerr
Ferris Layman – Greg Holt
C. C. Showers – Daylon Walton
Norma Henshaw – Lorna Woodford
Darlene Henshaw – Morgan Laurë Garrett
Basil Bennett – Paul J. Williams
Luelle Bennett – Marianne Galloway
Goldie Short – Whitney Holotik
Melvin Wilder – Gregory Hullett
Dewey Maples – Nathan Dibben
Photo credit: GEORGE WADA
Reviewed Performance 4/13/2014
Reviewed by Elaine Plybon, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The Diviners brings the realities of life in the depression to its audience by depicting a few days in the lives of the folks in fictional Zion, Indiana, as they experience laughter, hope, disappointment and tragedy. Jim Leonard, Jr. skillfully prepared a script that takes its audience through the ebb and flow of life without seeming contrived. The characters are genuine and the emotion real in the story of young Buddy Layman, who divines water and has a deathly fear of the same, his family, and the townspeople who are a part of his daily life.
Traveling preacher, C.C. Showers, arrives in Zion one day and begins working for Buddy’s father, a mechanic. The events surrounding the preacher’s arrival in a town that has been without a church for over a decade provide the backdrop for the tragic story that is Buddy’s life.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas presents The Diviners with a few slight changes to the action, including ensembles singing selections shared by the soundtrack of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? These musical respites were well done, although sometimes seemed out of place within the action, such as when an unseen group sang “Down to the River to Pray” backstage during a scene between C.C. and Buddy. The singing came in too soon, as Buddy was talking about hearing the sound of the river. Later, he mentioned hearing singing, but the singing had already been taking place throughout the conversation.
The onstage musical pieces were enjoyable, although they seemed like the add-on they were. The same “Down to the River to Pray” was one of those onstage pieces, sung by Marianne Galloway as Luella Bennett. Bennett’s voice control made for a pretty and wistful rendition of the song.
Also well done was the three-man ensemble of Dewey, Melvin, and Basil, played by Nathan Dibben, Gregory Hullett, and Paul J. Williams, respectively. With Hullett playing guitar, the blend of voices as they sang “I’ll Fly Away” was harmonious.
There were several times when line delivery timing withheld meaning from the audience. Many laugh-worthy lines flew by without a sound, and subtle meaning was lost. Still, for an audience who is seeing The Diviners for the first time, the cast did a good job telling a story.
The set, designed by Rodney Dobbs, was minimal but conveyed an idea of the settings for the action, including raised platforms on either side of the stage representing various settings such as the porch of the Layman home. The backdrop depicted rolling fields in front of a tempestuous sky. The main part of the stage was sloped and served double duty, sometimes as a riverbed and others a wood floor.
The strategic lighting design by Adam Chamberlin gave the audience an estimate of the time of day in each scene, with the colors and lighting transitions giving the impression of sunrise, noon and sunset. Mason York’s sound design integrated effects such as birds singing, the sound of crickets and thunder claps, and supported the lighting changes to provide realistic settings for the action.
Costume design by Barbara C. Cox was adequate for the storyline. Most cast members wore the drab, inexpensive clothing appropriate of a poor, depression-era community. Jennie Mae was attired in a flour sack dress. Ferris wore a pair of greasy coveralls that immediately informed of his occupation. The costume for C. C. Showers was somewhat out of place. The backsliding preacher had been living rough for weeks, but his spiffy, clean suit and slicked back hair made it seem as though he had just stepped away from the pulpit that morning. This was redeemed fairly quickly however, as Showers’ clothing became dirtier and dirtier as the play progressed - along with his arms and hands - appropriate for a man working in a garage. This was a nice attention to detail.
The talent on stage made for an enjoyable afternoon. Daylon Walton in the role of C.C. Showers was the result of a great casting decision by Director René Moreno. Fitting all of the clues to his appearance and demeanor from the script, Walton was believable as a wandering former preacher from first sight. Walton delivered on this first impression through a meaningful and emotional portrayal, smoothly transitioning with the turmoil and emotion written across his face. The scene where Showers is talking about his father being a preacher and his own departure from the profession is a perfect example of this actor’s ability. Boisterous gestures and emotions of determination, passion, and resignation running across Walton’s face as the dialogue unfolded resulted in a spot on performance.
Brandon Kinard played Buddy Layman well in a difficult role of an intellectually frustrated child. Through a stare, a tendency to nervously shake and bounce as he delivered his lines, and a slight speech impediment, Kinard was believable and sufficiently generated the necessary likeability of his character.
Greg Holt portrayed Ferris Layman as a brash, simple man. His demeanor and body language suggested a father who was just as likely to whip his children as hug them. In this light, Holt delivered his lines consistently and believably, showing little real emotion towards his children, who he referred to as “like weeds.”
As an ensemble piece, this play requires strength from every character. The remaining cast worked well together to create the setting for the play. Basil Bennet, played by Paul J. Williams, delivered a somewhat one-dimensional performance, rather than revealing the strong characterization this role called for through depth of emotion.
Zoë Kerr as Jennie Layman created a somewhat mousy character who was constantly tasked with keeping watch over her brother and who had a schoolgirl crush on the much older Showers.
Luella Bennett, the wife of Basil Bennett, was played by Marianne Galloway. There is a noticeable age difference between Galloway and Williams that may be believable as wide age discrepancies between husband and wife were not uncommon at the time. However, Galloway’s performance conveyed an attempt to portray a somewhat opinionated old woman, and her appearance defied that attempt. While her performance was spot on, the believability of the Bennett union was not.
Morgan Lauré Garrett portrayed an amusing Darlene Henshaw. In a scene when Darlene is telling Jennie Mae the real story and meaning behind the Genesis story, Garrett’s know-it-all and conspiratorial facial expressions and body language perfectly suited the occasion.
Whitney Holotik and Lorna Woodford, as Goldie Short and Norma Henshaw, were substantial in their supporting roles as townspeople who have hope that Showers will change everything in their little town. Their interactions as busybodies and townsfolk were always done with great timing and impact.
The pair of farmhands, Melvin and Dewey, was portrayed by Gregory Hullett and Nathan Dibben. Hullett’s performance lacked the comedic timing necessary to generate the desired laughter from his audience. Dibben delivered a funny, sweet performance with his simple tone and kind expression. His awkward nervousness as he interacted with Garrett as Darlene Henshaw was amusing.
One of the most striking features of The Diviners is its dramatic ending at the river which is always enhanced with lighting and special effects, as called for in the script. Chamberlin and York did a good job with the effects and Walton’s preacher and Kinard’s young man took the action to a believable depth between jumping up for air. The timing of the slow-motion crowd on the banks of the river sometimes did not sync with the movements of those in the river, but the cast finally got their timing together and were able to pull off this difficult ending.
Overall, Moreno brought together a good cast, a superb design team, and a great script to provide an entertaining and memorable experience.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
5601 Sears Street, Dallas, TX 75206
Plays through April 27th
Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm. There will not be a show on Easter Sunday, April 20.
Floor seating is $40.00 and $35.00 for seniors. Balcony seating is $35.00 and $30.00 for seniors.
For information and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com/ or call their box office at 214-828-0094.