Monday, October 24, 2016

The other part of "Finding Home": Indiana's bicentennial has a second, closely related celebration at IRT

Jan Lucas and Tim Grimm lead an ensemble song in "Finding Home."
Near the end of John Bartlow Martin's painstaking 1947 study, "Indiana: An Interpretation," the prolific midcentury reporter writes that "America is full of people like the Hoosiers,"and "America is a larger Indiana."

That might seem like the sort of sweeping summary authors use to give their books a more comprehensive stance than they would otherwise have.  But I think it applies particularly to an underlying theme I detected in "Gold," the second of two shows called "Finding Home: Indiana at 200," which premiered at Indiana Repertory Theatre Sunday afternoon.

A tendency embedded in the American experiment to spoil Paradise finds expression in "Hoosier Cannonball," among many deep-grained songs in old-timey style created by Tim Grimm and performed in both shows by him and his family quartet (with the addition of fiddler Katie Burk). The serpent in the American tree has always had a long list of temptations, and Americans dependably keep checking items off.

Madame C.J. Walker (Kim Staunton) exults in her business success.
Even more than its companion "Blue," which opened last Friday, "Gold" emphasizes the difficult search for justice that societies founded upon its promise have to undertake. Yet even as many kinds of unfairness happen and may be exposed, there is likely to emerge the myth of a golden age fiercely tended by the dominant group.

As a title, "Gold" refers to one of the colors of the Indiana flag. But the susceptibility of something precious to tarnish extends a warning against complacency to Hoosiers. When writ large, the warning seems applicable to the whole country. As Robert Frost wrote in his sententious gem of a poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay": "Nature's first green is gold, / her hardest hue to hold."

Yet the essential optimism of those who fight to assert their place in the American scheme of things indicates their ability to think golden thoughts, too. Shari Wagner's monologue for Madame C.J. Walker, passionately portrayed by Kim Staunton, brims with confidence in the broad meaning of creating and selling hair-care products and other cosmetics to black women. The entrepreneurial spirit, among Hoosiers and their fellow Americans alike, often has a saving idealism to partner with naked ambition.

Mark Goetzinger as Louis Shapiro
Hoosier pride is compounded of many instances of individual pride, like that expressed by Louis Shapiro nearly a century ago as he frets over the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in his beloved adopted hometown. Mark Goetzinger had a winning solo showcase (written by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso) as the delicatessen founder in his shop, touting his corned beef and America with equal verve. This was among many well-judged individual portraits, directed by Peter Amster,  which had pride shading into bravado even as they justify their appeal to our sympathies.

You might feel some of that, surprisingly, in the ingratiating bumptiousness of David Hoppe's portrait of John Dillinger. The perpetual tug of fame and celebrity on Americans often gathered up criminals in the early decades of the last century. Michael Joseph Mitchell was a pepperpot of bravado as he roamed the stage, replicating Dillinger's  fast-paced dash from state to state ahead of the authorities.

They would have to find Dillinger in Chicago indulging in his movie-watching passion before bringing his career to a violent end. Hoppe's way of capturing the glow of fame, in whatever manner it's pursued, displayed the same knack he showed in a full-length one-actor play of recent memory, "After Paul McCartney."

Another writing triumph in "Gold" was the contribution of Dan Wakefield, one of an elite company (is it more than two?) of literary stars from Indianapolis to have a city park named after them. With the loving attention to detail comparable to the James Joyce of "Dubliners," Wakefield made a basketball memoir that proved in performance to be another feather in the cap of cast member Goetzinger, who made the name-and-places-rich monologue seem entirely unaffected and spontaneous.

"Finding Home" is likely to stick in the memory for any number of small details that can stand for great swaths of experience: In "Blue," Madge Obertholtzer's odd timing for trying on hats in Susan Neville's sketch of her victimization by Klan boss D.C. Stephenson.  In "Gold," the scar on black businessman John Freeman's leg, crucial in preventing his being tossed into slavery and decisive in his decision to leave Indianapolis for Canada (Maurice Broaddus' work, starring David Alan Anderson). Also, a double portrait of two brave women by Lucrecia Guerrero and Neville, the lovely Victorian finery (among Ann Sheffield's costume designs) worn by DeLanna Studi and Jan Lucas, lending visual poise to the determination with which Albion Fellows Bacon and May Wright Sewall carried themselves in struggling for social progress.

Writers of distinction are the chief carriers of our cultural and historical memories. They are the basis of "Finding Home"'s success, the foundation upon which the wizards of IRT have conjured this indelible parade of Hoosier distinctiveness. As the Grimms sing simply in a musical portrait about another great Hoosier writer: "We know all about it / because Ernie Pyle was there."

[Photos by Zach Rosing]