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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Review: Hoosier play brings out actors’ best

By John Lyle Belden

Jim Leonard Jr.’s “The Diviners,” a snapshot of Depression-era Indiana with supernatural overtones, is presented through Sunday by Casey Ross Productions at Carmel Theatre Company (former CCP stage), 15 1st Ave. in downtown Carmel.

The story centers on Buddy Layman (played by Pat Mullen), a youth rendered simple-minded years ago by his near-drowning in the local river, an incident that took his mother’s life. Now a teen, he never bathes and is so afraid of water that he can sense rain hours before anyone even sees clouds, as well as feel it below the ground, allowing him to “divine” locations for wells.

He is cared for by his older sister Jennie Mae (Allyson Womack) and father Ferris (Zach Stonerock), the local engine and bicycle mechanic. Neighboring farmers Basil and Luella Bennett (David Mosedale and Kathryn Comer Paton) see Buddy’s abilities as an asset, as their lives are so tied to the land. In the play’s first scenes, Bennett’s farmhands, Dewey and Melvin (Johnny Mullins and Tyler Gordon) witness Buddy’s “divining” first-hand.

Into this world comes a young drifter, C.C. Showers (Davey Pelsue), looking for work. Ferris hires him, even though the man’s only job experience had been as a preacher, a job he had taken more out of family obligation than spiritual calling, and thus felt no motivation to continue. Showers also takes an interest in Buddy, seeing him more as a troubled person than a human water-detector. In town, they (and we) meet the remaining members of the cast, Bible-thumping shopkeeper Norma Henshaw and her headstrong daughter Darlene (Paige Scott and Heather R. Owens) as well as Goldie Short (Audrey Stauffer Stonerock), who runs the local diner; her bottled soda is about the only liquid Buddy will touch.

Norma’s desire to see the local long-destroyed church rebuilt has her see Showers’ every word and deed as a sign that the man will return to the ministry for their town. His actions to help Buddy with a persistent skin condition become much larger in her eyes, leading to tragic circumstances.

The cast, under the direction of Casey Ross, bring their dramatic A-game. Mullen earns praise for not overselling Buddy’s condition, earnestly delivering the boy’s frustratingly third-person speech and making him feel real. We can see Pelsue’s tattoos peeking out of his shirt sleeves, yet still believe he is a 1930s Kentucky preacher; this is his best performance yet. Mr. Stonerock is convincingly paternal; you can see the zeal gleaming in Scott’s eyes; and Mosedale is rock solid.

To be honest, there are no weak performances at all, which helps keep this play above its potential for cliché or caricature. For comparison, consider the best “Waltons” episode you ever saw, and add water.

For info and tickets, see uncannycasey.wix.com/caseyrossproductions or “caseyrossproductions” on Facebook.

(Also posted at The Word.)