They may share the same title, but Margaret Laurence’s classic novel The Diviners and Jim Leonard Jr.’s play of the same name come from two completely different bodies of water.
Although they both examine the relationship between families and community, Laurence’s book is set in the 1960s in Manawaka, Manitoba, while Leonard Jr.’s play is set in the small fictitious town of Zion in Indiana circa the 1930s’ Depression.
It’s the latter story audiences will witness when Powerhouse Theatre presents The Diviners at Vernon’s community theatre starting Wednesday.
“(Leonard Jr.’s) Diviners is based on the concept that life is hard for everyone. There is no work, and little pay, although it is not specifically about the Depression,” said director Monty Hughes, who is bringing the play back to the stage after presenting it at the Okanagan Zone Drama Festival and also directing it at Kalamalka Secondary School more than a decade ago.
Described as a conversational piece, the dialogue takes place between the main characters but also involves the peripheral townspeople.
“It’s a small town of about 40 people, where everyone knows what everyone else is doing,” said Hughes.
The play is centred around two tragic events: the town losing its church in a fire, and also the drowning of the protagonist’s mother eight years earlier.
Played by young actor Gus Hansen, Buddy, now 12, is described as being an “idiot boy” in the play. In today’s world, his condition would be considered as savant syndrome, or another spectral disorder such as autism or Asperger’s, in that he has a social disorder but demonstrates an exceptional skill, said Hughes.
In Buddy’s case, he can divine water and predict when it will rain, which helps the local farmer know when it’s time to cut the crop. The problem is that he is terrified of the water, and especially rain.
“He is traumatized by the death of his mother, who saved him from drowning but died herself. He won’t go near the water or even bathe. He’s filthy and has hives,” said Hughes. “He thinks he can breathe in the water – even rain – that’s why he fears it so much.”
Buddy receives help from the aptly named C.C. Showers (Erik Cherkoff), a former preacher who arrives in Zion looking for work and ends up getting a job at the bike shop owned by Buddy’s father, Ferris (Colin Carney).
Some of the townspeople, headed by local busybodies Goldie (Bev Steeves), who runs the coffee shop, and Norma (Debra Bob), who manages the hardware store, think they can railroad C.C. into becoming the new preacher, but he has left the church and embarks upon a new path – helping Buddy get over his fears.
“C.C. knows the trial ahead of him and at first he doesn’t succeed,” said Hughes. “When they first meet, the first thing Buddy says to C.C. is ‘Have you seen my Momma? I haven’t seen her for the longest time.’ He hasn’t come to the realize where his mother has gone.”
While helping Buddy, C.C. also forms a relationship with Buddy’s sister Jennie Mae (Caileigh Doroschuk).
“Both would like their relationship to me more, but there’s a major age difference,” said Hughes.
Despite the religious theme and heavy overtones, The Diviners also has quite a bit of humour.
“The humour is tongue-in-cheek in many ways. Reading the script there have been things that you have to catch on to that you may not hear or see initially,” said Hughes.
Most of the humour comes from the aforementioned “busybodies,” but there is also the clueless farmer Basil (Howard Joynt), whose voice could cut glass, and his wife Luella (Rosemary Enzig) and farmhands Melvin (Sheldon Graham) and Dewey (Will MacDuff), who is in love with Norma’s daughter Darlene (Felisha Anderson).
“Darlene is forced to say parts of the Bible to Norma before dinner or she doesn’t get fed,” said Hughes, adding that his cast all do a fabulous job on taking on characters with such varied personalities.
The play also contains tragedy, with Hughes hinting that it ends with a baptism and not the kind one would think.
The set (designed by Cara Nunn) is also abstract in that it is sparse, while costumes (designed by Bernadette O’Donnell along with Sarah McLean) speak to the times of the Depression era. Also working backstage are stage manager Raven Campbell and lighting designer Jessika LaFramboise.
The Diviners opens at Powerhouse Theatre Wednesday with nightly shows (except Sunday and Monday) at 7:30 p.m. until May 9. Matinées take place May 3 and 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets are at the Ticket Seller (250-549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca).
The Diviners is also Powerhouse’s entry into the Okanagan Zone (O-Zone) Drama Festival, which this year is being hosted by the Vernon community theatre. It opens the festival May 24. More information on the O-Zones, which ends May 31 with an awards ceremony, and a schedule of plays is available at theatrebc.org/zone-festivals, with tickets available at the Ticket Seller.