Ash Land by Transatlantic Love Affair, performing at Illusion Theater

Heather Bunch, Adelin Phelps, Isabel Nelson and Peytie McCandless in Ash Land.  Photo by Aaron Fenster.

Heather Bunch, Adelin Phelps, Isabel Nelson and Peytie McCandless in Ash Land. Photo by Aaron Fenster.

Here’s the ensemble-created plot of the affecting Ash Land (Transatlantic Love Affair, performing at Illusion Theater as part of their Lights Up! series, through Feb 22): John and Mary Stone’s farm is suffering the triple whammy of Drought, Dust and Depression.  But before the farm dies, Mary does, leaving her dreamy and hapless husband John to grieve and observe the land’s death throes.  Mary’s grizzled and chain-smoking sister Abigail arrives and threatens to sell out to the local banker.  But John has a daughter, Ellie.  Ellie’s as dreamy as John, but possessed also of a fiery and focused determination.  She – I won’t describe how she does this; see the play – saves the day.

Nice (if overly-familiar) stuff.

Ah, but what makes Ash Land, where the play gets its heat and passion, its theatrical power, is from director Diogo Lopes‘s unique physical inventiveness.  An ensemble of 8 (accompanied by terrific lap-steel player, Harper Zwicky), playing on an empty (but beautifully lit; praise to light designer Michael Wangen) stage, play the characters of the story.

The ensemble also plays wheat plants, the wind blowing over the prairie, water pumps, screen doors, windows, automobiles, mirrors (there’s a wonderful Marx Bros-like mirror sequence between Ellie and her deceased mother, not to be missed).  This gives the proceedings size and zip but there’s no ain’t-I-clever ego at work here; Lopes stays focused on the sweet characters.  The ensemble has a distinctive physicality, but they don’t have the mincing self-conscious presence of dancers.  They’re perfect, imo, utterly focused on the story.  This winning combination, of story and physicality, makes Ash Land compelling.

And the performers can act, really act.  Derek Lee Miller, beautifully captures John’s powerful, if confused, love for the land.  Isabel Nelson does gorgeous work as Mary.  “Ellie, if you ever need anything,” she says, hand gently resting on her daughter’s chest, “I’ll be right here.”  Wow.  Heather Bunch makes Abigail frightening and sympathetic at the same time.  I greatly enjoyed Eric Nelson as the grasping banker and Nick Wolf as his gangly lovesick son.

And, saving the best for last, Adelin Phelps as Ellie.  She gives a performance that is both powerful and understated.  She doesn’t work at making Ellie charismatic, she just is.  Dreamy, wild-eyed, combining the best attributes of both parents, Ellie is ready for anything the world throws at her.  Wonderful.

This isn’t a criticism by any means, but I do have to point out that the Lopes used an identical technique in Transatlantic Love Affair’s recent Fringe hit, These Old Shoes.  Lopes is a director of expansive imagination; I hope he will explore other approaches his next time out.  This well is now empty.

So: here we are, struggling with the most brutal winter in history, and, in Ash Land, Transatlantic Love Affair offers us a terrific portrait of a long hot summer on the prairie.  See it.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

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