An expansive, far-reaching tale about longings as deep and wide as the Indiana blue sky, The Diviners closes out Elite Theatre’s first season in its new digs in the Channel Islands Harbor. It’s a play that couldn’t have been staged in Elite’s previous home in the basement of the Petit Playhouse. The story of a disillusioned preacher who befriends a strangely gifted boy in a Depression-era small town requires breathing room. It’s also a benchmark for how far Elite has come in recent years.
Some of the theater’s strongest past work has treated spirituality and religion, including 2011’s As It Is in Heaven. The Diviners picks up on similar themes — faith, skepticism, the beauty and danger of belief. There’s more danger and less beauty here. Every last detail isn’t in place yet, but there’s a fluidity and depth among the principal actors that hasn’t been seen in quite the same way before, a sense that the vast gears that churn out successful productions are starting to grind in unison and quicken their pace. Both Elite’s selections and its performances have been deepening in sophistication, and that’s thrilling to watch.
At least part of the credit goes to Andrew David James, Elite’s new managing director, who also heads the cast. James selected the lineup this season and recruited James Castle Stevens to direct Diviners. As C.C. Showers, a former man of God who rambles his way into the fictional town of Zion, Ind., population 40, James sets a high bar for the rest of the cast. His warmth and decency help flesh out an ambiguous character. When C.C. stumbles across Buddy (Michael Beck), a young man addle-brained since he survived a childhood drowning incident that took his mother, Buddy finds a father figure and James finds an onstage counterpoint.
In the play, Buddy refuses to wash or go near water since the accident, but he possesses a mystical ability to predict weather patterns. His sister Jennie Mae (Jessamyn Arnstein) mothers him, since their father, Ferris (Andy Brasted), claims that, like weeds, children grow best without tending. C.C. steps in to fill the void, but the preacher-starved townspeople insist on framing his every action through his abandoned profession.
The entire cast’s performances gel as the play goes on, but nowhere is this richness more apparent than in Beck. His ticks as Buddy are consistently pitch-perfect — scratching his feet, guzzling cola or popping jellybeans into his mouth. Paired with James, his seemingly uncontrolled outbursts take on touching coherence. Thematically and practically, they’re the engine driving the play forward.
But they’re not the only ones with great chemistry. Arnstein excels as Jennie Mae, sweet on the preacher, shouldering a burden beyond her years. She’s earnestly flirtatious with James and patiently maternal with Beck. As Ferris, Brasted strikes the right balance between exasperation and soft-heartedness at home, but we see his easygoing camaraderie in the shop with his buddies. In the ensemble, Robyn Thomas and Joyce Rieske are especially good as a bible-thumping fanatic and a sour-tongued skeptic, respectively.
Lorna Bowen’s realistic costumes go far toward evoking the dusty remoteness of Zion, and Steve Grumette’s inventive lighting adds pathos and drama during a climactic scene. One minor complaint, however: The actors don’t observe consistent imaginary boundaries to distinguish locales on the multipurpose set designed by Stevens. And when C.C. enters at midnight from the direction of the house alongside Jennie Mae and Ferris, after it’s been previously determined that he’ll sleep in the barn, we don’t know whether we’re witnessing a shift in trust or sloppy staging.
The citizens of Zion conclude our play bereft, but thanks to this accomplished staging their audience doesn’t. With luck, Elite’s best work may lie around the corner.
The Diviners, through Nov. 17, Elite Theatre Company, 2731 S. Victoria Ave., Oxnard, (805) 483-5118, www.elitetheatre.org.