By Megan Ward
A childhood memory of a mentally challenged boy and a drowning cat inspired playwright Jim Leonard to write “The Diviners,” he told the middle school cast that will soon perform his award-winning play.
“The Diviners” takes place in 1930 in the fictional town of Zion, based upon the small Indiana town where Leonard grew up. “The Diviners” is the story of Buddy Layman, a mentally disturbed boy who is deathly afraid of water who befriends C.C. Showers, a former preacher. The play revolves around their unlikely friendship and ends tragically when Showers attempts to wash Buddy in the river. People in the town mistake his actions for a baptizing, and amidst the confusion, Buddy drowns.
Leonard, who visited the cast for a question and answer session on Wednesday April 20, said that his inspiration for the character of Buddy came from a mentally challenged boy who lived on a farm near his hometown. The boy’s father would gather kittens, place them in a bag and drown them to prevent an excess of cats roaming the farm. The town, which like Zion was very religious, was often the location for full-body immersion baptisms, and when it was the boy’s turn to get baptized, he struggled and yelled that he was not a cat, Leonard said.
Leonard, who was 23 and just out of college when he wrote “The Diviners,” wanted to be a fiction writer. At first, he was afraid to write dialogue and for him, the character of Buddy was especially challenging. The other challenge was writing a likeable preacher.
“I finally decided the only way I’m going to like the play was if [Showers] was an ex-minister, so he didn’t like himself either,” Leonard said.
“The Diviners,” even with some controversial themes, has had almost no backlash, said Leonard, who believes because he grew up surrounded in a similar environment, he felt like he knew the characters he had created. The play was the winner of the American College Theater Festival in 1979 and is often performed around the country.
“Telling stories to an audience is a great gift to give,” Leonard said. “If you see a good play or participate in a good play, you have it forever.”The cast will perform the play in the Katzenberg Black Box Theater this Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.