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'Diviners' leaves a lasting impression

OKOBOJI, Iowa -- Okoboji Summer Theatre scores a hit this week with the beautifully presented inspirational drama, "The Diviners."

I can practically guarantee that almost everyone in the audience will be thinking about the play and its characters long after they leave the theater.

Playwright Jim Leonard Jr.'s opening scene depicts the old-fashioned method of searching for water using a divining rod, in this case a willow stick. Buddy, a young disabled man, has an uncanny sense for locating the source of underground water for a well. He also displays an eerie instinct for any oncoming rain storm.

As a child, Buddy almost drowned while his mother perished during the same tragic incident. Buddy's survival left him struggling with severe mental impairment and also with a morbid fear of water (hydrophobia.)

He lives on a farm in Zion, Ind., in the care of his father and older sister, who tolerate his outbursts and his peculiar behavior. It's a difficult time for the family during the 1930s Great Depression and drought, but his father and sister love him, and he returns their affection.

Early in the first act, a stranger arrives at the farm looking for work. This man, who goes by the name of C.C., has just left his preaching ministry in Kentucky.

C.C. and Buddy develop a close relationship, C.C becoming more than a friend; he's Buddy's teacher-mentor. Meanwhile Buddy's sister and other young women of this tiny town, population 41, are attracted to the charismatic ex-preacher. The people of Zion lead an insulated life so a stranger offers mystery and excitement to otherwise ordinary days. Welcome humor occurs in this play along with its serious content.

A dramatic conclusion follows, which brings as many questions as it does answers. The emotional impact of "The Diviners" is almost overwhelming.

Beth Leonard (no relation to the playwright) directs with sensitivity the talented 11-member cast. At intermission while talking briefly with us, she commented that this early-1980s play is not performed very often because it requires just the right cast. A reviewer remarked that "The Diviners" strongly reminds one of John Steinbeck.

Sam Cordes is amazing in the role of Buddy whose every word of dialogue and every purposely-awkward movement characterizes the adolescent boy with severe coordination problems. Buddy's love of birds, his desire to fly away with them, as well as his concern for his mother in Heaven (Is she happy? Is she thinking about him?) all contribute to his appeal in spite of his character's multiple handicaps.

Matt Weiss, a favorite from other seasons, makes a splendid preacher-friend in a part that requires him to be dynamic, yet tender. Also noteworthy are Andrew Silva, Buddy's father, and Kyra Koelling, Buddy's sister. A few side-plots give opportunities for other interesting characterizations and for some of the comedy.

A simple set suggests an Indiana farm of the Depression era, which converts effectively to a river bridge scene.

"The Diviners" deserves a hearty recommendation; it's a very special don't-miss-experience that continues through Sunday. Seats appear to be available, as yet, for most performances.