Review: 'Amber Waves' unearths dignity in farm life

"Amber Waves," written by 1982 Kansas University graduate James Still, takes place on an eastern Kansas farm. The material is difficult, because like many traditional farm families, these characters are not given to articulating their emotions. Nevertheless, the talented cast of Kansas University Theatre's production, directed by Doug Weaver, manage to convey the lives their characters live and the problems they face, despite their reticence.

Where playwrights like Arnold Wesker conclude that farm life is barren and stupid because its people do not talk everything out, Still recognizes the thought and feeling of these proud and closemouthed folk.

The set, by Erica Gilmore, neatly suggests a Kansas farm, with clusters of ripe wheat, limestone fence posts and a near-lifesize windmill whose slowly turning blade suggests the passage of time. A Carpenter-Gothic house outline hovers overhead, with the family's kitchen below, where much of the action takes place. Christina Cha's lighting provides dramatic hints of the family's emotional temperature.

The play's theme is the Olson family's fear of losing their farm after several lean seasons. This real economic fear is compounded by the Olsons' pride -- no one must know they're having trouble -- and by the claustrophobic small-town environment, where, as son Scott says, "Everybody knows everything about everybody!" James Horton ably portrays Scott, a 16-year-old high school athlete, as an adolescent lout on the surface, but, beneath that, a deeply concerned family member.

Kate Giessel, playing Scott's mother Penny, nicely conveys an edginess and anxiety that she attempts to smother with optimism. One thinks of "The Grapes of Wrath," where the one thing to be feared is the men's losing hope -- a condition that Penny tries to head off with false cheer.

Carter Royce Waite has the toughest role, playing the inward and uncommunicative farmer Mike, Penny's husband, whose eloquence often lies in turning and stomping away rather than discussing difficult subjects. Waite handles the character's narrow range of emotional display creditably.

But the play turns on the daughter, 12-year-old Deb, clearly the recipient of the family's farming genes. Courtney Schweitzer handles the role splendidly, transiting from antic energy to painful sensitivity. She finds a mentor in Johnny, an elderly neighboring farmer for whom she does odd jobs, and who recognizes and encourages her love for the land.

Deb also has a friend, Julie, well-played by Katrina Alford. A bit more precocious than Deb, the boy-crazy Julie provides some good comic moments. Dressed in flowered miniskirt and slides -- a vivid contrast to the Olson family's jeans, boots and shapeless tops -- she tempts Deb with the lure of makeup. Her "sophistication" also preys on Deb's fear that people are noticing her family's lack of style and, by implication, lack of success on the farm.

The role of Johnny is superbly played by professor emeritus of theater Ron Willis, whose easygoing manner and gentle teasing of Deb are a way of saying to her that people have faced problems before and have survived them. Willis makes the character of Johnny into a personification of farming, and a promise that, like him, it will continue.

The play continually intersperses dramatic action with monologues addressed to the audience by one character after another. This handles the problem posed by a basically uncommunicative family: In the monologues, the characters can open their hearts. Perfectly done, perhaps this would maintain the arc of the drama. However, the audience's restlessness during some of these narrative interludes suggested they were, at times, perceived as interruptions.

"Amber Waves" will be performed in KU's Crafton-Preyer Theatre at 2:30 p.m. today and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

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