The mournful strains of that heartland hymn "Amazing Grace" sound over the drab-colored set as "The Diviners" opens. The somber music sets the tone. For this is a land of mourning, a place where townsfolk mourn their burned-down church, a mechanic mourns his drowned wife, and a preacher mourns his faith.
In Beth Marshall Presents' gorgeous production, the hardscrabble town of Zion, Indiana, is also a place where a gleam of hope trickles in, like light filtered through clouds – rain clouds that the town desperately needs.
At the center of the tale is a boy with a way with water. Buddy Layman, barely a teenager, survived the river accident that claimed his mama when he was just a baby. Now he's a diviner: He can find water in the ground, he can sense when it will rain. He has also been "touched" — a simple boy, he refers to himself in the third person, he has to have colors and the concept of heaven explained to him.
But mostly, overwhelmingly, Buddy is terrified of contact with water. He refuses to bathe or even touch it. It's up to ex-preacher C.C. Showers to lead him to the water, in both the physical and spiritual sense.
The set, by Tom Mangieri, beautifully conveys the simple life of these folk. Rustic wooden frames depict home and barn.
Against the earthy set, the people are a bit too put together — these are the cleanest farm folk I've ever seen. And director Aradhana Tiwari, who otherwise sets an engaging pace for the story's twists and turns, doesn't have her characters quite careworn enough at play's start.
But that doesn't mean the characters don't make an immediate impression.
As Buddy's father, Don Fowler nicely shows all the sides of this complex man. His anti-Herbert Hoover jibes provide some comedy, his anguish at losing his wife provokes sympathy, and his affection for his unusual son, nicely depicted in both speech and body language, gives the play a big chunk of its heart.
Michael Marinaccio touchingly expresses the pain that C.C. must be feeling: He's so sure he has lost his faith, he's oblivious to the fact that his acts of kindness toward young Buddy are at the core of Jesus' teaching: Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.
And CK Anderson, as Buddy, is riveting. He wins over the audience with his simple, single-minded intensity and deftly avoiding clowning as he portrays a teen whose brain is wired just a little differently than ours. When he's offstage, you're waiting for him to return.
Anderson and Marinaccio have a natural rapport as their characters form a bond of two damaged souls trying to heal one another. True, there's no Ghost of Christmas Past or Santa to be seen, but isn't helping a fellow creature in need a lovely lesson for the season? In this production, it most certainly is.
•What: 'The Diviners,' from Beth Marshall Presents
•Length: 2:20, including intermission
•Where: Garden Theatre, 160 W. Plant St.,
•When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 18
•Tickets: $24; $20 students and seniors