Saturday, October 22, 2016

'Finding Home: Indiana at 200' — IRT displays a Hoosier cornucopia of song and vignettes

The niftiest thing about Indiana Repertory Theatre's bicentennial observance is not that the job of sifting submissions from Hoosier writers has been so smoothly integrated into two shows, but that the balance of celebration and friendly criticism is so keen, affectionate, and deft.

Here I cover only the "Blue" show, which opened the run Friday night. The "Gold" version, with 70 percent new material, opens Sunday afternoon. Mentioning everything even one of these shows contains would be cumbersome, but I will say that all the "Blue" sketches "worked," and that balance of pride and finger-wagging was also carried through in the original songs Tim Grimm performed with his family, plus fiddler Katie Burk.

Through narrative elements as well as his music, Grimm gives "Finding Home" a solid, inviting continuity. Integrating a show emphasizing Indiana's "who-knew?" diversity and friction-filled history must have been a Herculean labor. But what's delivered to the audience is mostly fun, romping around Robert Mark Morgan's detailed, folksy set, including emblems of Hoosier history in a floor collage.

A rousing song led by Tim Grimm is one of many ways the show salutes our 200-year-old state.
What human community doesn't look askance at people who don't seem to belong? The way Indiana shares that trait with people everywhere has an irony rooted in its name. "The land of Indians" had uprooted the native peoples from their land by the 1830s, the show informs us. That's pretty quick work for a state cobbled out of the wilderness (which was also briskly cleared away) in 1816.

"Finding Home" also seems universal in showing how difficult progress is, whether it involves overcoming resistance to using actual science to spur pharmaceutical advances (there's a crisp Eli Lilly/G.H.A. Clowes sketch by Jennifer Blackmer)  or breaking the gender barrier at the Indianapolis 500 (Tom Horan's wonderful ensemble piece about Janet Guthrie for the cast's women).

It's tempting to see those outfoxed or set aside by history as villains in retrospect. Some can be fairly identified as such, though the nastiest of them (in a sly stroke) is the Kentuckian who seeks to disrupt the Underground Railroad in Bennett Ayres' sketch. But you also have to see resisters as defenders of good, settled ways of life slow to innovate, like the young farmer tempted to join the Ku Klux Klan in Donna L. Reynolds' piece.

You may have to examine times when you chose closed-mindedness in your own life. The thoughtfulness threaded throughout this long show is as integral to it as the fun, such as the high-spirited ensemble kudos for Hoosier food and the Indy 500 in songs by Tim Grimm and Jan Lucas.

Finding home with difficulty: James Dean visits his high-school drama teacher in Fairmount.
The profoundest of the thought-provoking sketches is Sarah Layden's description of the ostracism Ryan White suffered dealing with AIDS acquired through a blood transfusion in the early days of the scourge. David Alan Anderson plays a high-school classmate of the Kokomo teenager, whose valiant struggle attracted worldwide attention and brought celebrities to his Indianapolis funeral in 1990.

Anderson's performance captured the halting self-appraisal a searing, guilty memory often arouses in us. He seemed to float above Layden's words in an atmosphere of reminiscence and regret that felt fully authentic. I mean this in the best sense: The actor was engaged with the text, responsive to its narrative element, while also transcending it as the speaker seeks atonement for his youthful lack of empathy and support.

Ensemble shout-out to food includes Jackson Grimm and Jan Lucas.
You know how in a dream you are sometimes lifted out of yourself, observing, while also being inside your skin doing something (usually trivial, silly or puzzling)? This was like that, but on the most serious, real-world level. I won't soon forget how well-judged Anderson's management of talk and pauses was, how precisely he expressed the anguish of assessing a past moral failure without chewing the scenery.

That made his final gesture —  of placing a hand gently on Ryan's jacket, draped over a pizza parlor chair, then sitting down —  a mute blessing that ennobled all the words that had gone before. The cliche of being able to hear a pin drop applies to the silence of the IRT Upper Stage crowd here; the sketch was well-placed before the comforting and upbeat finale.

There is so much else that could be praised about this bicentennial hootenanny and history lesson — and such commitment and skill in the parade of portrayals directed by Peter Amster, but I want to mention only three more: DeLanna Studi's performances in James Still and Anne Garcia-Romero's riveting story of Princess Mishawaka and Bruce Hetrick's narrative of the Deer Lick Creek Massacre, genuine Hoosier episodes in the dreary, depressing advance of injustice toward native peoples across the continent; and Michael Joseph Mitchell (Eugene V. Debs) and Mark Goetzinger (James Whitcomb Riley) in Dan Carpenter's uproarious flight of fancy involving two Hoosier icons in their cups.

Some of the Hoosiers I have known since coming here in 1986 are no longer among us to enjoy
"Finding Home." I have put together an imaginary guest list to occupy some of the seats between now and Nov. 13. At the top of it are the names of Lawrence "Bo" Connor, who hired me at The Star, and Frances Linthecome, on whose memories Still drew for one of his evocative Indiana plays and whom I got to know at church.

You will have your own list, I'm sure.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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