reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

James Still’s evocative creation Amber Waves started it’s artistic journey as a one-act play focusing on the feelings and outlook of children whose family struggles with the possibility of losing their family farm. The expanded full-length version, which opened this weekend on IRT’s UpperStage, encompasses the entire family’s endeavor with the the uncertainties of a modern farm economy. To me, it is a masterpiece – the ideal of what a play about social struggle should endeavor to achieve.

Deeply poignant, without ever lapsing into sappiness, the story follows a year of high points and low edges as an Indiana farm family is caught in the
cycle of the many costs and ellusive profits of American farming. It displays for us how decent people face the turmoil of life’s struggles, highlighting their assorted anxieties, sacrifices, small joys and tight budgets. It explains how land is a member of the family and how farming is literally in a family’s bloodline. Playwright Still uses both monologue and scenework to convey the family dynamics and inner thoughts of his characters – to great effect.

Lisa Rothe directs a splendid cast, utilizing an imaginative set by Narelle Sissons augmented by Mary Louise Geiger’s sensitive lighting patterns and Todd Mark Reischman’s organic sound design. Theresa Squire adds a knowing touch with her spot-on costume choices.

Mary Bacon and Torsten Hillhouse as farm couple Penny and Mike in IRT’s production of “Amber Waves”.

Torsten Hillhouse joins Mary Bacon to portray the farm couple, Mike and Penny Olsen. Hillhouse has Mike’s farmer persona down to a T – with his loping stride, his hungdown attitude about most things that aren’t farm related, and his shy and prideful countenance. Ms. Bacon’s Penny is the peppy million-things-at-once wife and mom – holding together the family, supporting everyone through the crisis, while keeping her own dreams just slightly at bay. Both these fine actors are as genuine as you could imagine Indiana farmers to be, giving us a moving vision of the challenges our country’s farm families face.

from left: Deb (Jordan Pecar), Scott (William Brosnahan), Mike (Torsten Hillhouse, and Penny (Mary Bacon) in IRT’s production of “Amber Waves”.

Their two children – teenager Scott and junior high schooler Deb – are offered up in surprisingly adroit turns by William Brosnahan and Jordan Pecar. Both young performers show that they know their way around emotional roles as they render sharp portrayals of two kids with little control over what their futures may hold. Every one of their appearances onstage adds to the feeling of honesty in Ms. Rothe’s direction.

Johnny (Charles Dumas) and Deb (Jordan Pecar) in a scene from IRT’s production of “Amber Waves”.

Two important smaller roles are perfectly done by veteran actor Charles Dumas as neighboring farmer Johnny and young actress Riley Jaria as Deb’s friend, Julie. Both add to the fabric of the story and once again the natural qualities of the entire cast’s portrayals are further enhanced with their contributions.

from left – foreground: musicians Tim Grimm and Rachell Eddy perform in IRT’s production of “Amber Waves”.

An essential piece of the onstage emotions and themes is brought out by the in-show musical recitals provided by Tim Grimm and Rachel Eddy. Grimm wrote the musical punctuations (along with Jason Wilber) – and his performances with Ms. Eddy are enchanting, especially their blending of voices. Ms. Eddy is proficient on violin, guitar, banjo and dulcimer – which adds much to the depth and richness of this important musical facet of the show.

Bottomline: Director Lisa Rothe has pulled together the talents of more than a few creative people to produce what I believe to be one of the best, most eloquent shows of the local theatre season. Mr. Still’s work here rivals his fine Appoggiatura. This is a must-see.

Amber Waves will continue its run at Indiana Repertory Theatre through April 28th. For specific information on dates, show times, and ticket orders, visit IRT’s website at http://www.irtlive.com/.

  • Banner artwork by Kyle Ragsdale
  • Photos by Zach Rosing