Challenges of modern farm life in Still’s ‘Amber Waves’ at IRT

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.

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BCP: Life’s changes not always a laughing matter

By John Lyle Belden

The title “Making God Laugh,” for the comic drama now on stage at Buck Creek Players, refers to the old joke about giving the Almighty a giggle by telling Him your plans.

And this good Catholic family’s matriarch, Ruthie (Gloria Bray), definitely has plans. With postal-worker husband Bill (Tom Riddle) at her side, she wants to see: son Rick (Matt Spurlock) succeed at something, any scheme at all, other than high school football MVP; son Tom (Ben Jones) become a priest, maybe Monsignor (maybe the Vatican?); and daughter Maddie (Jenni White) to get being an actor out of her system so she can settle down with a nice young man.

The scenes are set at various holidays: Thanksgiving 1980, Christmas 1990, New Years Eve 2000, and an unusual and emotional “Easter” in 2010. We see the evolution of these characters, and what remains unchanging. From the life-changing choices made by Maddie and Tom, to Ruthie staying ever set in her ways and expectations, at the core of this family story is love. There is also the struggle for acceptance, both of others and of self, giving the plot surprising depth.

This cast wear their roles like the comfortable clothes one wears around kin. Bray is a rock; Jones gives one of his best performances; and White excels as a person that she admits felt a bit autobiographical. Cathy Cutshall directs.

For those of us who lived through the eras, the references to each decade bring a knowing smile. (There is also a mention of the game Catholic Jeopardy — which apparently does exist, as a box of it is under the coffee table.) At the end of each scene, there is a family photo, leading to a full album in the end.

You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate this family’s struggles – we all know a Ruthie we’re related to. And God isn’t the only one laughing. Performances run through Sunday, April 7, at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

P.S.: As an example of the fact that anything can happen in live theatre, during a scene change on opening night there was a spontaneous audience sing-along. The BCP crew were both surprised and amused.

BCP presents truly off-kilter comedy

By Wendy Carson

It’s said that you can never go home again. After seeing the comedy “37 Postcards,” on stage now at Buck Creek Players, you might think twice about even trying.

Avery Sutton has spent the last eight years traveling throughout Europe. Now he’s decided to return home with his new fiancé. He tries to warn her that his family is a bit odd, however, just how crazy things have gotten in his absence will throw them both for a loop.

The house itself is tilted; his dead Grandmother is very much alive; nobody’s fed his dog for 5 years; and his father has become golf-obsessed. Add to this his Aunt’s new “Cottage Industry” and Mother’s spotty memory, not to mention those mysterious 37 postcards, and you have the makings for one hilarious tale.

Under the direction of Jan Jamison, who also designed the wonderful tilted stage set, this production revels in the whimsy throughout Michael McKeever’s script and gives us a thoroughly enjoyable show.

I’m sure none of you are familiar with the story, but it may become a favorite once you have watched it all play out. We sort of described it as “Arsenic and Old Lace” without all of the murdering.

Dave Hoffman perfectly portrays Avery, a man who is struggling to figure out what is going on around him and desperately trying to keep sane while doing so. As we discover why he had left home eight years before, he discovers that his relatives had been escaping each in their own way as well.

Mary McNelis does a wonderful job portraying Avery’s confused mother, Evelyn; though her selective memory mimics a sort of early dementia, her portrayal never mocks the condition. Wendy Brown is hysterical as the foul-mouthed and still very much alive Nana. Tracy Brunner begins as the picture of sanity in this confusion as Aunt Ester, then quickly shows her own wild side. Mike Harold gives a heartfelt performance as Avery’s father, Stanford, who avoids his own uncomfortable secret.

Between being mistaken by the maid by Evelyn, constantly insulted by Nana , and forced to golf all night by Stanford (not to mention what Aunt Ester says to her), Letitia Clemons gets to show her range of exasperation as Avery’s finance, Gillian.

Last, but not least, is the exceptional debut of a fresh talent in Lucy Telpin’s layered take on Skippy. One note, she can be a bit of a Diva so don’t expect a meet-and-greet with her after the show.

Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave., near the Acton Road exit off I-74 southeast of Indy. Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

I would also like to point out that this show has been rated PG-13. There are a few harsh words and innuendo (plus one term most parents will not be eager to define to younger children). So, you might want to consider leaving the little ones at home, but bring the teens and the rest of the family out for a great look at what family really is and how crazy it can make you.

Sharing a sweet treat with family

NOTE: Usually we do reviews of plays we’ve seen and games we’ve played, but everyone’s gotta eat — and when an award-winning Indiana confectioner appealed to our sweet tooth, we had to bite. Enjoy:

By Wendy Carson

Last month, 240 Sweet of Columbus, Ind., sent me a special treat box of marshmallows & hot chocolate to try out and review. I took it along with me down to our Thanksgiving visit to the family so that they could help us try it out and here is the result:

First of all, the hot chocolate mix is aptly named “Decadent Drinking Chocolate” and we all agreed that this was undoubtedly the most delicious hot chocolate any of us had ever tasted. It was rich and had a perfect balance of flavors which made it an excellent conductor for the marshmallows. Since the mix is blended with real milk and heated on the stovetop, that is likely part of the reason it is so delicious.

Now, on to the marshmallows. We were given two different flavors to try: Sugar Cookie and Bourbon Brown Sugar. Each flavor was tasted on its own and in the hot chocolate.

The Bourbon Brown Sugar was yummy but had a distinctive bourbon flavor, so it was only enjoyed by the adults in the group. Those that were non-drinkers of alcoholic beverages were not keen on them due to the bourbon flavor. However, the rest of us thought they were delicious. They blended with the cocoa very well and were amazing when lightly toasted to bring out the full caramelized flavor of the sugar & alcohol. The verdict: A must for anyone who is known to imbibe, but a definite pass for those who abstain.

The Sugar Cookie flavor was tried by everyone and almost unanimously enjoyed. The children loved the taste and were pleasantly surprised yet delighted by the crunch of the cookie bits in each one. One adult, however, felt the crunchy bits gave the marshmallow a gritty texture. These marshmallows were a perfect addition to the hot chocolate. The flavors blended together to enrich each other without either overpowering. Since everyone tried these, we weren’t able to save any back for toasting – but I have sampled one before so I do know it has a very good taste, and again, the cookie bits are an unexpected delight.

We also need to note that one of our tasters doesn’t like marshmallows or sugar cookies and his opinion was that they were “very interesting.” He was surprised that he actually liked them and felt he would be open to having them again.

Our one complaint was that the marshmallow bags were not reseal-able. Since it is unlikely that all of the marshmallows will be consumed in one sitting, some sort of closure to ensure freshness would be recommended.

Overall, we were greatly delighted by the treat box and feel that it would be a worthy splurge (it lists for $35) for the holiday season.  You can purchase this item (or one like it) from their website www.240sweet.com; or at one of the many handicraft and arts fairs around the Indy area, like Yelp’s Totally Bazaar (6:30 p.m. this Thursday at the Indianapolis Central Library, see here for details).