James Still, playwright-in-residence at Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis, has set his latest play, Amber Waves -- officially opening Feb. 11 -- on Indiana soil, focusing on a family losing a farm.
The world premiere play hits close to home for Still, 40, whose great grandparents came from Scandinavia and settled into a farm life in Pomona, KS. Though he was raised by a teacher father and a small-town banker mother, Still lived in a world of farming, a town of 800.
"My grandparents were farmers," Still told Playbill On-Line. "Like many plays, emotionally, it's very autobiographical."
Elements of the new work, which began previews Feb. 9 and continues to March 4, are based on stories Still heard growing up, or stories farmers told him when he was writing and researching.
The play is a two-act expansion of a short play he wrote 10 years ago. In the Indiana Rep staging, directed by the playwright, actor John Henry Redwood plays a wise farmer and friend to a fortysomething couple facing the loss of their farm. Tim Grimm plays the farmer, Mike, Jan Lucas is his wife, Penny. The children, meanwhile, are shielded from the real circumstances and they imagine a number of disasters during a difficult year. "This is the fourth generation on this farm," Still said. "The play takes place over the course of a year. This is very important in a farm's life. We start in summer, in the middle of a drought, we go through harvest in the fall, the dead of winter and replanting in spring."
The production tells the story partly in video, with an 18-by-24-foot barn wall serving as a screen for video images of the seasons, the crop, the landscape, family pictures and some vintage 8-mm film of farms in the 1940s.
Still has used video in the past, with such plays as And Then They Came for Me, a Holocaust oral history play. Still also wrote The Velocity of Gary (Not His Real Name), seen in New York in 1999 and in a film version released in 1999.
"[The family] are facing a difficult year, financially," Still said of Amber Waves, set on a southern Indiana corn and bean farm. "The drought creates a lot of problems, in terms of loans coming due. A fairly unreported story is how low farm prices are. It's about the hard choices this family has to make during this year. The parents' instinct to deal with this [in front of their kids] is to pretend nothing is wrong, but the 16 year-old [son] can smell a rat, and the 12-year-old [girl] starts to see it, also."
Still sees the play as a kind of "going home" for himself, exploring his roots.
"There hasn't been a lot theatre, plays, about farm life," Still observed. "My experience with what media and entertainment reflected back to me about rural America is things like 'Hee Haw' and 'Green Acres,' and that wasn't my life. That wasn't a life I recognized. I didn't know what that was."
Still's exposure to the stage in eastern Kansas was apprenticing at a summer stock theatre when he was 16 and working up the ranks to director. The venue was a former barn on a onetime farm, where Inge, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Williams were played for rural audiences (curtain time: 8:27 PM, allowing farmers to work late with the sun).
"That was a magnificent experience," he said. "It was about making something happen out of nothing."
The cast of Amber Waves also includes Mat Hostetler, Courtney Bolin and Kristen Cooler. Grimm and partner Jason Wilber composed original music for the play.
Designers are Russell Metheny (set), Michelle Habeck (lighting), Joyce Kim Lee (costumes) and Mark Williams (videographer).
Tickets are $10-$35. Indiana Rep is at 140 W. Washington St. For information, call (317) 635-5252, or try www.indianarep.com.
-- By Kenneth Jones