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Small town play in a small town school

'The Diviners' opens Friday, March 7
by: Jessica Gregg, Misunderstood boy Buddy Layman, center, played by Isaiah Brown, is restrained by Ryan Callahan, left, and Coleton Sticka during one of the more intense scenes of

When Chris Harris, Sandy High School's drama teacher and director, worked on his graduate thesis on the play 'The Diviners' in the 1990s, one moment in particular stood out - and not just for his work thesis, for his work as a director.

That was a conversation he had with the play's author, James Leonard Jr., in which Leonard stressed that the most important aspect was in telling the story of the play.

'That's really shaped me as a director, because ever since then I always try to think more in my direction in terms of being a storyteller,' Harris said. 'That's what he stressed back then, and it's stuck with me for all my shows.'

Harris, who has since directed 'The Diviners' twice, now tells the story a third time at Sandy High School for two weekends starting Friday, March 7.

The story centers on a disenchanted preacher and a misunderstood boy in a small town in Indiana during the Great Depression.

While some aspects of the production, such as the set, will be similar to the productions Harris directed before, there will also be a number of differences, most obviously in the students he cast.

'I've kind of counted on the actors a little bit to bring a little different feel, a little different sense of interpretation,' Harris said. 'I've tried to let them be individuals, and in some respect that's been the hard part. Sometimes I have these fixed ideas of the previous two (versions of the) characters.'

Harris said the play is great for high school students because there are a number of good roles for them to delve into. And since the setting is a small town, students in Sandy can easily relate to the characters and the story.

'The main thing that just draws you in is that we all kind of live in these small little communities where we see things like this happening, but not to the same extreme,' said senior Isaiah Brown, 17, who plays the misunderstood boy, Buddy Layman.

The staging of the play - with all actors on stage for the majority of the play whether they are in the scene or not - remains similar to Harris' previous productions, but the director noted that the format came out of his discussion with the playwright.

And while the structure of the play isn't intended to keep the audience in suspense, it relies on the actors to draw them in.

'You get the end of the story at the very beginning, but it's the journey that matters, versus the plot line,' said senior Casey Hoelting, 18, who plays Luella Bennett, a gossiping townswoman. 'I think a lot of plays depend on the story line (and) the climax at the end; that's what the audience is waiting for.

'But with this show, we have to draw you in with community and with the journey. I think it makes for a better performance.'

Harris grouped 'The Diviners' with a couple other plays - 'Our Town' and 'You Can't Take It with You' - that he feels are great for high school actors, and ironically enough, has also directed three times. But don't expect this gem to show up again on stage at Sandy High School while Harris is still there.

'It'll be the last time I do it before I retire,' said Harris.

'The Diviners' will be performed at 7:30 p.m. March 7, 8, 13, 14 and 15 at Sandy High School, 17100 Bluff Road. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for students and senior citizens. For more information or to make reservations, call 503-668-8011, ext. 381.