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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

CTC's Amber Waves reaps a strong play for older children and adults

No amber waves ripple across golden fields of ripe crops in the Children's Theatre Company's excellent production of James Still's Amber Waves. Drought, debt and growing desperation takes its toll on the engaging Olson farm family; the corn shrivels in the fields, and their cheerful life together begins to fissure, like dry earth, under the strain of impending foreclosure.

In spite of an outstanding cast, terrific staging and a strong story, I do not recommend this play for children under 10. Amber Waves confronts disquieting issues of adult failure, pride, conflict, perseverance and hope, and it touches on suicide.

Playwright Still sets Amber Waves on a Midwestern family farm in the early 1990s when small farms were folding, crushed by low crop prices and heavy debt. We first meet the attractive Olson family in their farm kitchen, just before a prolonged drought pushes them towards bankruptcy. Thirteen-year-old Deb competes for position in the family with her high school-aged brother Scott, and farmer Mike flirts with his high-energy wife Penny, the gravitational center of the family. Amongst all the playfulness, Mike and Penny talk of a failed neighbor's farm that is being auctioned off by the bank. As the rainless summer drags into a rainless fall, and the corn withers before their eyes, they are soon looking down the barrel of foreclosure, themselves.

Amber Waves
Kelly Bertenshaw, Celeste J. Busa and Terry Hempleman
Under the sure-handed direction of artistic director Peter Brosius, the cast of six give fine performances. Celeste J. Busa shines as Deb, a girl as vigorous as a healthy corn stalk in spring. But her assertiveness and fun give way to round-shouldered anxiety as the family tension mounts around her. Her older brother Scott, in a strong portrayal by Jason Armbruster, understands more than Deb and, in a touching address to the audience, sees his care-worn father for the first time as an old man.

Always strong, Terry Hempleman plays Mike and taps his character's deep sense of shame when he has to sell off a chunk of his forefathers' land. But, even with a heartfelt delivery, Hempleman cannot save a speech from sounding like a small sermon as Mike laments the inevitable loss of money each time a farmer plants a crop in the ground. Kelly Bertenshaw excels as Penny. In a release from all the tension, she romps through a wonderful scene in which her mild punishment to control her children's squabbles turns into a hilariously rendered "Hey Jude."

In two comparatively less developed characters, T. Mychael Rambo charms as the hokey old neighbor Johnny, who befriends Deb, and pretty Ali Rose Dachis convinces as air-headed Julie, intent upon boys and shopping.

Brosius seeds Amber Waves with lovely details. As the drought continues, the corn rows in Joseph Dodd's set bleach and grow dryer, until they are dead. By accident, Deb shatters a pitcher, prized by her mother. The failing corn and the broken pitcher underpin the pressures and fractures that occur within the fraught family and strengthen the action.

Amber Waves is staged with an effective simplicity that befits its Midwest farm setting. Against a backdrop of prairie sky, props glide on and off stage as scenes change. Most dramatic is the downpour of longed-for rain that returns hope, like spring sunshine, to the family.

By running Amber Waves in repertory with Honk! The Ugly Duckling Musical, CTC offers Honk! for young children and the poignant and beautifully produced Amber Waves for older children and their parents.

Amber Waves September 2 - October 11 in repertory with Honk! The Ugly Duckling Musical. Amber Waves Wednesday, 24, 7 p.m. Thursdays, 7 p.m. Fridays, 7:30 p.m. Alternate Saturdays, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. Some Sundays, 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. (Check schedule.) $9-$28. Children's Theatre Company, 2400, 3rd Avenue South Minneapolis. 612-874-0400. www.childrenstheatre.org.


Photo: Rob Levine



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Elizabeth Weir



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