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A Depression-era fable in Southern Indiana

Jim Leonard’s award-winning drama The Diviners at IPFW

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Jim Leonard’s Depression-era play The Diviners — which begins its run at IPFW on April 17 — won the National American College Theatre Festival Playwriting Award in 1980 and, later that year, was produced professionally at the Circle Repertory Theater in 1980, earning rave reviews.

Yet a quick scan of reviews and articles about the play usually mention how difficult it is to pull off, how the play’s careful mix of humor, humanity, and spirituality is a potential hazard for any cast and director.

Leonard, who grew up in New Haven, Indiana and now lives in LA, says he doesn’t quite understand how The Diviners is any more difficult than any other full-length play out there. “I think all plays are difficult to pull off,” he laughs. “To get that many people on the same page and working in the same style is very, very difficult, and to find the tone… it’s just hard.”

He adds: “I suppose this play is a little tricky because the subject matter can be a little tricky. It’s so much about religiosity and issues surrounding religion, and that’s sometimes difficult.”

“Also, I think that because they’re small town people and rural people in Southern Indian in that period, it’s very easy to go ‘Mayberry RFD’ on it and make a mess of the whole thing.”

The Diviners tells the story of the relationship between C.C. Showers (Aaron Mann), a preacher who finds his way to the small town of Zion, Indiana and Buddy Layman (Chad Kennerk), a seemingly simple-minded boy with the gift of divining or water-witching, a talent that stems from his intense phobia of the water, developed after his mother sacrificed herself to prevent him from drowning. “All of the characters have loved and helped care for Buddy since his mother’s accidental drowning,” explains Jeff Casazza, who is directing IPFW’s production. “Everyone in Zion was affected by the tragedy of Buddy’s family. The play is a celebration of who Buddy was and how Showers came in and changed everyone’s lives.”

Leonard got the “theater bug” after he left New Haven and was studying English at Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana. “There was a one-man theater department at Hanover run by a guy named Tom Evans,” Leonard says. “He directed the plays, built the sets, did the lights, did the costumes, and he just happened to be really brilliant. I learned an awful lot just watching his productions. Hanover is such a small school; it’s less than a thousand students. But (Evans) would literally come up to kids in the cafeteria or coffee shop and say ‘Shakespeare wants you’ or whatever. He’d say ‘I need you to come carry a spear for me, or say ten lines, and I know you’re capable’.”

Leonard was in a few plays, but… “I was never really comfortable on stage and I doubt if I was any good, so certainly writing was a way to be involved in theater and not have to stand up there feeling out of place.”

After Hanover, Leonard went to graduate school to write fiction, but he says he spent his first and only semester there working on a play. That script became And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson, a story about a young woman in the small town of Jackson, Indiana confined to a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy. First produced at Hanover, it was entered in the American College Theater Festival and received great acclaim.

Leonard began work on The Diviners the next year. Like And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson it was first produced at Hanover, and also takes place in a small, rural town in Indiana. “Having grown up, through part of my life, in New Haven, I know that kind of area well,” Leonard says. “Also, I like a limited palette, I like the idea of a town where everybody knows everybody else and knows their business.”

Leonard also writes for film and television. Leonard’s latest play Battle Hymn recently opened at Circle X Theatre in Los Angeles. He also writes and produces for films and television, where his credits include creating the television series Close to Home, Skin, and writing and producing the American version of Cracker.

IPFW Director Jeff Casazza loves the characters in The Diviners, seemingly simple individuals with nevertheless great depth, struggling with phobias, physical illnesses or overwhelming desires, such as returning to their childhood homes. “When we think of small towns, we think of the positive things, the nostalgia,” says Casazza. “It’s fascinating how all of these characters with such different, yet very strong personalities all love and support each other in this play.”

IPFW Department of Theatre presents The Diviners by Jim Leonard
Directed by Jeff Casazza
April 17, 18, 23, 24, 25 at 8:00 p.m.
April 26 at 2:00 p.m.
Sign Language Interpreted Performance Sunday, April 26
Williams Theater
Admission for IPFW students with I.D. is free
$14 Adults, $10 Seniors and Groups of 10 or more
$12 Faculty/Staff/Alumni
$5 Students 18 and under
$8 Other “college” students with ID
The New Schatzlein Box Office in the Rhinehart Music Center is open
Monday – Friday, 12:30 – 6:30 pm.
Box Office: 260-481-6555
TTD: 260-481-4105

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.