By Sarah Henning
Anchorage Daily News
The role of Buddy Layman requires a brave soul. And UAA Theatre found one in Ryan Buen.
In “The Diviners” Friday night, Buen portrayed a mentally disabled teenager with an authenticity reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.”
Buen’s transformation into Buddy is one of two outstanding performances that make this good-but-not-great play worth attending.
“The Diviners” is a timely but heavy-handed folk tale set in Zion, Ind., during the Great Depression that warns about the dangers of simplistic religion. The problem is, the play’s also about a dozen other things, including the replacement of people with machines, the Depression economy, and the nature of instinct. Playwright Jim Leonard Jr. plucked themes like so many wildflowers, but didn’t quite finish fashioning them into a cohesive bouquet.
The play’s focus is Buddy, whose mother drowned when he was 4. Through that experience, he gained a water phobia (he never even bathes) and a mystical ability to divine water. He can tell where to dig wells, and when it will rain. Both gifts make the farmers grateful and the women suspicious.
But Buddy’s not the play’s only diviner. A newcomer to Zion, ex-preacher C.C. Showers, sees something special in Buddy and is determined to help the boy overcome his debilitating fear. The women of Zion are fearful that their lack of a church or spiritual leader will send them all to hell, and so they divine their salvation in Showers. It’s this religious certainty that causes the play’s shocking, violent end.
Buen understands the physicality of the Buddy role, his arms and fingers often cocked at nearly impossible angles. But more importantly, he masters the character’s emotional life. The actor conveys that Buddy is innocent and vulnerable, frustrated at his own limitations and able to find great joy in simple things. He also changes moods as fast as a toddler.
When C.C. tries to cure Buddy’s rash by putting him in a tub of “itch juice” – water and Epsom salts – Buddy hugs himself tearfully and sings frantically to distract himself. Gradually as his itching subsides, a look of calm satisfaction comes over his face. A moment later, he’s exuberant, splashing and laughing with a disarming, but infectious, bray.
Buen’s skill is matched by Jerry McDonnell, who plays Buddy’s father Ferris. McDonnell embodied the folksy mechanic with a rustic charm and boisterous laugh. His affection for Buddy felt genuine, and he also understood the character’s flaws, especially when Ferris is at a loss to cope with Buddy’s problems.
The remainder of the cast belied the inconsistency of student actors, with some moments of true believability and accomplishment, and other moments where the actors let their mistakes or insecurities show up on their faces. Nathan Huey has great potential as C.C., but didn’t plumb the depths of his character as much as was necessary. C.C.’s motivations – both to leave his job as pastor and to take such an intense interest in Buddy – need to be clearer for the play to work well.
Director David Edgecombe and his technical staff sprinkled in all sorts of elements that made this production unique without distracting from the playwright’s intent, such as the old-timey playing of a saw with a bow at the start and finish of the evening. And the set’s sky changed from blue to stormy to star-filled so beautifully, it dominated the play’s changing moods, almost becoming another character in the play.
Those directorial and technical decisions, combined with some strong performances, added luster where it was missing in the script.
For the complete review, read the Daily News on Tuesday.
If you go
“The Diviners” runs 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 21 at the Mainstage Theatre in the UAA Fine Arts Building. Tickets cost $10-$18, or $7-$10 for UAA students. (786-1792, www.uaa.alaska.edu/theatre)