Portola Valley theater stages 'The Diviners'

Theatre Conservatory observes its 20th anniversary with 'The Diviners'

Click here for tickets and more information. There are performances at at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 21-22; and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 23. View trailer.

By Cheryl Goodman-Morris, artistic director, Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory

Hope, faith and fate. These are some of the themes of "The Diviners: A Play in Two Acts and Elegies," being staged by the Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory March 14-23, with a preview on March 13.

Since the mission statement of our theater conservatory is to present works of joy, transformation, and hope, this seems a fitting choice for our 20th anniversary celebration.

The back story

I first saw "The Diviners" 30 years ago and have never forgotten it. The story is so powerful I have wanted to direct it ever since.

It has taken a while for the Conservatory to produce the piece, however, because casting is tricky. While the cast is primarily adult, the lead is a 14-year-old boy named Buddy Layman, who is mentally challenged.

The actor who plays him must totally be able to track the action on stage even though his character is seemingly oblivious to much of it. The part demands a huge emotional range and carries a heavy line load. It is not easy to find a young actor who can meet these qualifications.

I met that young man two years ago when I was introduced to John Kissel of Menlo Park. He was then a 12-year-old student at La Entrada Middle School and had just moved back to the Bay Area from Portland.

John had acted in several Oregon Children's Theater productions and had started taking classes at our Portola Valley Children's Theatre Conservatory. In many ways John is mature and insightful beyond his years, and in others he is still a kid. It turns out this is a great combination for Buddy.

In addition, Matt Waters, a popular math teacher at Woodside Elementary and sought-after Peninsula actor has been cast in the role of CC Showers. CC is Buddy's mentor and friend. Matt and John have this relationship in life, and their rapport makes for an engaging, touching, winning pair on stage.

The play's synopsis

Buddy Layman, a 14-year-old Depression-era Indiana farm boy, has a gift for divining water, a crucial gift for his drought-ridden town. But he is also deathly afraid of it, for good reason. Buddy nearly drowned in a river at age 4, and his mother died saving him.

Consequently he won't wash and itches constantly, putting his health in great jeopardy. The whole town is talking about it. Jennie Mae, his sister, and Ferris, his father, love the boy but are at a loss as to how to help him. CC Showers, a disillusioned preacher, shows up looking for a job and develops a warm and healing relationship with Buddy all revealed in chilling flashback.

Haunting and beautiful, this powerful play has echoes of "Our Town" and "Of Mice and Men" but is definitely a fresh piece that moves theatergoers to tears one minute and laughter the next.

Long after the curtain lowers, "The Diviners" will have the audience thinking about its poignant story and the deep questions raised about law and grace, and the differences between blind faith and genuine love.

The cast

In addition to Buddy Layman and CC Showers, a delightful supporting cast of good old boys, religious matriarchs, and teenagers just busting at the seams to grow up lights up the stage.

Actors playing these roles include Alanna McNaughton of Woodside, Mark Goodman-Morris of Portola Valley, Mark Bowles (producer at the Woodside Community Theatre), Dorian Dunne of Portola Valley, Betsy Burdick of Redwood City, Darlene Batchelder of Redwood City, Torrey Rothstein of Portola Valley and Andrew Saier of Redwood City.

The production also features a lively 15-person gospel-style "Angel Band" that richly enhances the action. They sing and dance such great spiritual/gospel songs as "There's a Meeting Here Tonight," "Wade in the Water," "Bottom of the River," "Amazing Grace," "Down to the River," and "I'll Fly Away."

Woodside's Niko Korolog underscores the production with a combination of original works, as well those composed by other artists.

About the evening

The audience will have the opportunity to discuss the play with the director and cast at "talk backs" following most performances. There is a celebrative toast and reception following the opening night performance on March 14.

"The Diviners" is recommended for adult audiences and students in grades 6 and above. Performances run March 13 (preview) through March 23.

Tickets range from $10 to $40.

Go to pvtc-ca.org or call Stacie Shelby at 851-8282, ext. 105, to order tickets.

The Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory is located at The Lane Family Theatre, 945 Portola Road, Portola Valley.

About the Conservatory

It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years since we initiated a whole new era in performing arts in Portola Valley with the first Conservatory production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

We have nothing but gratitude for the hundreds of performers, artists and designers, young and old, who have lit up our stage in production after production since.

Shows have run the gamut from musicals such as "The Music Man," "Oklahoma," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Nunsense," and PVTC's original "Puah's Midwife Crisis," to straight dramas such as "Our Town," "The Laramie Project," "Proof," "Distracted," and our most recent original work, "Persephone."

When we incorporated as a 501(c3) in 1994, we never dreamed that we would have a collective total of 15,000 audience members stream through our doors, or that we would be able to raise over $50,000 to give to charities through the generosity of our supporters, patrons, and underwriters.

In addition to our Mainstage productions, the Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory is privileged to run a full Children's Conservatory for 150 students, pre-K to eighth grade, with classes in acting, playwriting, directing, improv and musical theater.

Over the years, the children's theater classes have reached thousands of children, both on our own campus and in our outreach into schools, including at-risk children in the inner city. Classes are taught at the PVTC campus.

It's been quite a ride.


Posted by Cheryl Goodman-Morris, a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Mar 18, 2014 at 5:13 pm

"The Diviners" is a powerful, thought provoking play. The elements of faith and hope may not be readily apparent. While it takes a little divining, time spent in reflection helps bring the elements of faith and hope to the surface. This post is designed to help facilitate that process:

Insights Regarding Faith and Hope in "The Diviners":

Background on the Setting of the Play
The play is set in Zion, Indiana, population 40. "Zion", in both Jewish and Christian circles, represents Jerusalem, the Holy City, or the Kingdom of God. Zion, Indiana is a fictitious town, which gives it a mythical, other worldly quality. There is the sense that the action that happens in the play is not only happening in a concrete way in real time; it is happening in "kingdom time"; eternal time; it is the fulfillment of something long awaited.

The number 40 in Biblical circles is significant, also. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. The Noah's Ark flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days before he was tempted by the devil. In the Bible, there is a relationship between the number 40 and the fulfillment of promises.

When CC Showers arrivals in Zion, a drought plagues the town. The church burned down 10 years ago, and the town is languishing. When CC arrives, the drought ends. Buddy discovers water. The rains start to come. With CC's arrival, something new breaks loose, and a course of action is set for the rest of the play that gains in momentum as the play moves along, culminating in the powerful ending.

Where is the hope?
Since the play ends as a tragedy, we are forced to confront the darker side of faith and of hope. If the play had ended with Buddy's survival, we would have gone home feeling good, but might not have thought much of his story again. Jim Leonard is willing to face the aspect of faith that is most troubling and tell the truth about it. It stands as an existential question. What happens when good loses in the face of evil (even if that evil is masking as "good"? i.e., Norma and the women on the side of the river singing and praying for Buddy?) As difficult as it is, this is also a part of faith. We can pray and pray for someone to be healed and they still die. Hurricanes wipe out cities. A savior is crucified on a cross.

In the earliest version of the crucifixion/resurrection stories, in the Gospel of Mark, the heartbroken women who loved Jesus come to the tomb to anoint the wounds of the crucified Jesus. When they arrive, they discover that Jesus' body is gone. An angel tells them that Jesus has risen, but they are terrified. The earliest and most reliable gospel accounts end the story here. As surprising as it is, this is the final statement In the earliest version of Mark:

"The women fled from the tomb, trembling and bewildered, and they said nothing to anyone because they were too frightened."

It is up to the community of faith to gradually see that the ending of the earthly life of Christ is not an ending but a beginning, that Christ is alive and his life and legacy lives on in all of them. In coming to terms with Buddy's death, I believe the play asks us to dig deeper for this same kind of faith. When Buddy drowns, all seems to end in fear and terror. But is there more?

We chose for Buddy to die in the position of Christ on the cross when he drowns. The look on his face is one of surrender, of letting go. In his death, Buddy has been released to return to his home and his mama. From our immediate, temporal perspective, Buddy's death is truly tragic. During the course of the play, however, he learned some very key lessons about who he was. Perhaps in the greater, more eternal scheme of things, Buddy has learned what he was on this earth to learn and the fulfillment of his time has come.

Through CC, Buddy has learned that he was loved and forgiven. Just moments before he died, CC had sprinkled water on Buddy in the river to wash him. Shortly after he proclaimed Buddy "a good guy". When Jesus was baptized in the river by John, God's voice was heard saying that Jesus was his son, with whom he was well pleased. Even though CC claims that he is not baptizing Buddy, in effect, this is just what he has done. Earlier in the play CC had convinced Buddy (through a wrestle reminiscent of Jacob wrestling with the angel) that he was not guilty of his mother's death. Through CC, Buddy has learned that he is not guilty, that he is a good guy, a loved guy. He is washed clean and is freed to move on. In death, Buddy is released to a bigger, freer life with God, and rejoined to his mama. This is resurrection.

The closing Elegy of the play helps us see this. Through Basil's words, we are led to believe that the people of the town ultimately come to this understanding:


And like a slate wiped clean or a fever washed away where there was fire to the sky now there's nothin. Where there was clouds there's just blue and the sun.
We turn the earth to the earth like a child to his mother. And we think a the boy and we call it a blessin. We turn to each other and we call it a blessin.

One final thought:
There is also the possibility of hope for CC. When the play opens, he was running away from a vocation that was forced on him, from a life that didn't fit. He didn't know who he was or what he wanted to do. All he knew was what he didn't want. In Buddy, CC finds a truer vocation. Whereas he could no longer practice the fundamental religion of his father and continue to say words which had no meaning for him; through Buddy, he learned how to love and care about another human being as a person, which is a far truer calling. After Buddy's death, CC could choose to fall into a deeper sense of being lost; of despairing. But he could also choose a far more redemptive path. Buddy taught CC how to love. If Buddy's death is not to be in vain, CC needs to choose to live in the way of love and connection that his relationship with Buddy has taught him. Is that not what resurrection is about? Christ lived on through his followers actively carrying on his legacy, empowered to love others in the way he had taught them.

~Cheryl Goodman-Morris, Director

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