Shall we gather at the river?
No divine intervention but plenty of powerhouse performances in this bleak Depression-era tale
Published: December 8, 2011
through Dec. 18
160 W. Plant St., Winter Garden
America’s ineffectual government, led by an unpopular president, is helpless to combat meteorological catastrophe; meanwhile, avaricious bankers rape the working class. The insulated elite barricades itself behind gilded walls, while haggard masses wander aimlessly, scavenging the ravaged landscape.
This isn’t an allegory for today’s Occupy era, a preview of next year’s post-Christmas apocalypse or a synopsis of The Walking Dead. It’s the story behind The Diviners, Jim Leonard’s play about faith and failure during the Great Depression, now in a handsome and moving production at the historic Garden Theatre.
In the summer of 1932, the drought-induced Dust Bowl has drained hope from the heartland, especially in tiny Zion, Ind. Enter C.C. Showers (Michael Marinaccio), a former Kentucky preacher who abandoned Bible-thumping to wander westward with a handful of possessions and no marketable skills. Showers stumbles into town and swiftly bonds with Buddy Layman (C.K. Anderson), a mentally challenged boy with a sixth sense for finding water (“divining” or “dowsing”) and a habit of referring to himself in the third person. Buddy’s widower dad Ferris (Don Fowler) gives Showers shelter and a job fixing Schwinns, and 16-year-old sis Jennie Mae (Toni Clair) takes a shine to him. But despite C.C.’s insistence that he’s no longer a man of God, the spiritually starved townsfolk, led by a strident shopkeep (Marty Stonerock), strive to drag him back to the pulpit. When Showers struggles to overcome Buddy’s life-threatening aquaphobia, the community’s warring wants collide with mortal consequences.
Producer Beth Marshall and director Aradhana Tiwari have assembled a cast and crew of Orlando-area all-stars. Though a few supporting performers struggle somewhat with volume and dialect, the cast’s seasoned core – including Fowler, Stonerock and Mike Lane, who delivers the show’s elegiac finale – are at the top of their considerable game. Crucially, the casting of the two leads couldn’t be better. I can’t be utterly objective about Marinaccio’s performance, since he’s a longtime collaborator and friend of mine, but he’s as appealing and empathetic (or more so) here as in any of his lauded turns at Mad Cow or Shakes. (Marinaccio is taking a hiatus from performing to focus on his new role as producer of the Orlando Fringe Festival, making this the last chance for a while to see one of Orlando’s best actors.) Even more revelatory is 14-year-old C.K. Anderson’s powerhouse performance. It would be easy for Buddy’s pronoun-challenged idiom to seem demeaning or too-precious, but Anderson makes us want to embrace him like an abandoned baby bird. Tying it all together is the exceptional technical work: Tom Mangieri’s rough-hewn set, Amy Hadley’s sumptuous lighting and John Valines’ Thomas Newman-tinged sound design form a simple yet striking canvas, upon which Tiwari stages silhouetted tableaux and seamless scene transitions.
If I have one caveat, it’s that The Diviners isn’t the uplifting Christmas fare its marketing might suggest. There is plenty of humor, but you’ll know from the opening lines that this is a tragedy. And the ending is so brutally nihilistic, with barely a glimmer of salvation, that even this jaded cynic got the sniffles. Watch Rudolph or Frosty if you want a heartwarming holiday; this show is about the exquisite pain inherent in the real miracle of life.
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