By John Lyle Belden
The story of the Olson family of rural Indiana is like that of many farmers across America, which is part of what makes “Amber Waves” by James Still such an important play.
Mr. Still, the playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, where this drama plays on the upperstage through April 28, took inspiration from his own upbringing on a Kansas farm, which his family has since lost.
The Olsons face the very real danger of losing what generations of kin had built, even as they witness an old friend’s farm, and its family’s possessions, going up for auction. Mike (Torsten Hillhouse), the only one of the “Olson boys” to stay on the farm, tries to only think of what chores and repairs must be done in the coming days, to keep the faith that it will be enough, and to search the skies for long-overdue rain.
Mike’s wife, Penny (Mary Bacon), is totally devoted both to her husband and their vocation. She largely succeeds in staying positive, even as unpaid bills pile up, but teenage son Scott (William Brosnahan) and 12-year-old daughter Deb (Jordan Pecar) become increasingly aware that something’s wrong.
Much of the story involves Deb’s point of view. She works for elderly neighbor Johnny Apple (Charles Dumas), who always seems to find more odd jobs for her to do, giving her a few more much-needed dollars. Her situation also strains her relationship with best friend, Julie (Riley Iaria), from a more wealthy family. Meanwhile, life goes on, with the County Fair, school activities, the Homecoming game — normal aspects of country living.
The atmosphere is made complete with music and songs by Tim Grimm and Jason Wilber, performed onstage by Grimm and Rachel Eddy.
First performed in 2000, the play has been updated, including tech references, but the core story is as current now as it was then. There is even a mention of recent tariffs affecting crop prices. It tugs at the heartstrings in a genuine manner, as we see a family experience what feels like a lifetime in a single year.
Directed by Lisa Rothe, the performances feel natural, like these actors truly are family, or that Hillhouse really stepped off a tractor before coming onstage. Bacon is outstanding as a mother finding the multiple roles of a farm wife almost overwhelming, but persevering through willpower and love.
The simple wooden stage set and old latch-handle refrigerator at the back suggest a timeless, well-worn comfortable setting (kudos to scenic designer Narelle Sissons). Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger makes clever use of glass-jar lighting. Grimm grounds this production with his music, singing and connection to the original production; Eddy provides a perfect compliment, an Appalachian virtuoso of various string instruments, and a beautiful voice.
The IRT is located at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, near Circle Centre. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.