Depression-era play opens next week
By Caroline Ho, Arts Editor
Douglas College’s next theatre production The Diviners is a tender tale of societal expectations and personal struggle through a time of intense economic hardship.
The Diviners takes place during the Great Depression, in a small Indiana town whose church burned down a decade ago. When an ex-preacher comes to town looking for work, he strikes up a close bond with Buddy, an intellectually disabled boy who is terrified of water yet has an uncanny skill for divining it. As the townsfolk discover the preacher’s past, his desire for a fresh start comes into conflict with the community’s wishes for religious guidance.
Despite the story’s religious content, The Diviners isn’t just about faith. The story primarily focuses on the external and internal conflicts between and within characters, some of its actors told the Other Press in an interview last week.
Everyone in the town believes in something, but while some are proponents of formal organized religion, some care more for the spiritual aspects. However, each character is driven by their own motivations and aspirations—part of the reason for the show’s title, according to Nels Ellis, who plays ex-preacher C.C. Showers, since “every person in the play is looking for something.”
Life during the Depression was unlike today’s world in many aspects, with different language and technology, societal standards, and the daily struggles of living. Kobe Doi, who plays Ferris Layman, a hardworking mechanic and Buddy’s father, said it’s been a challenge getting into the mindset of the era and considering the stakes of problems such as unemployment.
“It’s hard to take yourself to that place of desperation, I find, on a daily basis. It can be very taxing if you’re in an eight-hour rehearsal and you’re trying to be at that point the whole time,” he said.
The actors have also had to work to avoid turning their characters into stereotypes. For Showers, Ellis said he’s tried to portray not just your standard idea of a preacher, but a believable, rounded human being. Ellis originally prepared for the character by trying to emulate prominent evangelist Billy Graham, but he later revised Showers a lot by delving further into his motivations and backstory.
Emily Thorne plays Norma Henshaw, an older woman who is very religious and sure of herself—a character dissimilar to Thorne herself in many ways. She said she’s also found it challenging to not turn Norma into a stereotypical old, devout, Southern woman, but Thorne has made her relatable by finding areas where their personalities align, such as deeply caring for their friends and communities, although they express this care differently.
Thorne told the Other Press that her favourite part of working on The Diviners has been developing such close relationships with her fellow cast members. However, that closeness has also come with its own difficulties, as she’s had to avoid letting her own feelings seep into her character too much. “It’s been interesting trying to bring that in and not project my own feelings about my cast members onto their characters, and let my character experience their characters,” said Thorne.
This projection of feeling is especially delicate for the setting of The Diviners and its Depression-era prejudices and behaviours, particularly when interacting with the character of Buddy (Dayna Hoffmann). Outright discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities was far more acceptable in the 1930s than today. They actors have had to delve into the reasons behind their characters’ biases to make them sympathetic, even when displaying prejudices that the actors and audiences might find deplorable.
Doi said he hopes this aspect will be one of the most enlightening things about the play, and that it can cause audiences to reflect on their own feelings by presenting the characters’ biases very openly.
“If you show how much you hate this person, they’d be like, ‘Well, sometimes I feel like that. Why am I feeling like that?’” said Doi.
Even with all its seriousness about the time period and subject matter, though, The Diviners is not a dark, dreary play, but rather one that Ellis describes as “grounded in reality.” It includes some more comedic scenes that involve dancing, drinking, and flirting, and it exhibits an underlying note of positivity.
“I think that all the characters throughout the play find places to have a lot of joy, even though it’s set in this Depression era,” said Thorne.
The Diviners will be showing in the Laura C. Muir Performing Arts Theatre from November 10 to 18. Tickets can be bought in advance online at thediviners.bpt.me.