Almanac

Cover Story - March 12, 2014

Celebrating hope and faith

Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory observes its 20th anniversary with 'The Diviners'

Story by Cheryl Goodman-Morris, artistic director, Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory. | Photos by Ashley Pogue of Portola Valley

Hope, faith and fate. These are some of the themes of "The Diviners: A Play in Two Acts and Elegies," being staged by the Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory March 14-23, with a preview on March 13.

Since the mission statement of our theater conservatory is to present works of joy, transformation, and hope, this seems a fitting choice for our 20th anniversary celebration.

The back story

I first saw "The Diviners" 30 years ago and have never forgotten it. The story is so powerful I have wanted to direct it ever since.

It has taken a while for the Conservatory to produce the piece, however, because casting is tricky. While the cast is primarily adult, the lead is a 14-year-old boy named Buddy Layman, who is mentally challenged.

The actor who plays him must totally be able to track the action on stage even though his character is seemingly oblivious to much of it. The part demands a huge emotional range and carries a heavy line load. It is not easy to find a young actor who can meet these qualifications.

I met that young man two years ago when I was introduced to John Kissel of Menlo Park. He was then a 12-year-old student at La Entrada Middle School and had just moved back to the Bay Area from Portland.

John had acted in several Oregon Children's Theater productions and had started taking classes at our Portola Valley Children's Theatre Conservatory. In many ways John is mature and insightful beyond his years, and in others he is still a kid. It turns out this is a great combination for Buddy.

In addition, Matt Waters, a popular math teacher at Woodside Elementary and sought-after Peninsula actor has been cast in the role of CC Showers. CC is Buddy's mentor and friend. Matt and John have this relationship in life, and their rapport makes for an engaging, touching, winning pair on stage.

The play's synopsis

Buddy Layman, a 14-year-old Depression-era Indiana farm boy, has a gift for divining water, a crucial gift for his drought-ridden town. But he is also deathly afraid of it, for good reason. Buddy nearly drowned in a river at age 4, and his mother died saving him.

Consequently he won't wash and itches constantly, putting his health in great jeopardy. The whole town is talking about it. Jennie Mae, his sister, and Ferris, his father, love the boy but are at a loss as to how to help him. CC Showers, a disillusioned preacher, shows up looking for a job and develops a warm and healing relationship with Buddy — all revealed in chilling flashback.

Haunting and beautiful, this powerful play has echoes of "Our Town" and "Of Mice and Men" but is definitely a fresh piece that moves theatergoers to tears one minute and laughter the next.

Long after the curtain lowers, "The Diviners" will have the audience thinking about its poignant story and the deep questions raised about law and grace, and the differences between blind faith and genuine love.

The cast

In addition to Buddy Layman and CC Showers, a delightful supporting cast of good old boys, religious matriarchs, and teenagers just busting at the seams to grow up lights up the stage.

Actors playing these roles include Alanna McNaughton of Woodside, Mark Goodman-Morris of Portola Valley, Mark Bowles (producer at the Woodside Community Theatre), Dorian Dunne of Portola Valley, Betsy Burdick of Redwood City, Darlene Batchelder of Redwood City, Torrey Rothstein of Portola Valley and Andrew Saier of Redwood City.

The production also features a lively 15-person gospel-style "Angel Band" that richly enhances the action. They sing and dance such great spiritual/gospel songs as "There's a Meeting Here Tonight," "Wade in the Water," "Bottom of the River," "Amazing Grace," "Down to the River," and "I'll Fly Away."

Woodside's Niko Korolog underscores the production with a combination of original works, as well those composed by other artists.

About the Conservatory

It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years since we initiated a whole new era in performing arts in Portola Valley with the first Conservatory production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

We have nothing but gratitude for the hundreds of performers, artists and designers, young and old, who have lit up our stage in production after production since.

Shows have run the gamut from musicals such as "The Music Man," "Oklahoma," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Nunsense," and PVTC's original "Puah's Midwife Crisis," to straight dramas such as "Our Town," "The Laramie Project," "Proof," "Distracted," and our most recent original work, "Persephone."

When we incorporated as a 501(c3) in 1994, we never dreamed that we would have a collective total of 15,000 audience members stream through our doors, or that we would be able to raise over $50,000 to give to charities through the generosity of our supporters, patrons, and underwriters.

In addition to our Mainstage productions, the Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory is privileged to run a full Children's Conservatory for 150 students, pre-K to eighth grade, with classes in acting, playwriting, directing, improv and musical theater.

Over the years, the children's theater classes have reached thousands of children, both on our own campus and in our outreach into schools, including at-risk children in the inner city. Classes are taught at the PVTC campus.

It's been quite a ride.

About the evening

The audience will have the opportunity to discuss the play with the director and cast at "talk backs" following most performances. There is a celebrative toast and reception following the opening night performance on March 14.

"The Diviners" is recommended for adult audiences and students in grades 6 and above. Performances run March 13 (preview) through March 23.

Tickets range from $10 to $40.

Go to pvtc-ca.org or call Stacie Shelby at 851-8282, ext. 105, to order tickets.

The Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory is located at The Lane Family Theatre, 945 Portola Road, Portola Valley.

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