REVIEW: Local Wonders (Full Sky Productions)

    
     

Discovering the familiar anew

  
  

Paul Amandes and Anne Hills in Local Wonders

   
Full Sky Productions presents
   
Local Wonders
  
Adapted by Virginia Smith and Paul Amandes
From the book by Ted Kooser
Directed by Virginia Smith
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
Through Jan 9  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

If the land shapes the soul as much as the soil, you sure get to know Nebraska by the last of these 90 minutes. It’s not flat at all,but tips gradually and slides inevitably into the Missouri River that defines its eastern border.  It’s “a country shaped by storms, “a prairie polished by storms,” and a “landscape of litter” left behind by countless wagon trains and other westward travelers. This—specifically Garland, Nebraska, pop. 500–LW Guitar 2 (L-R): Paul Amandes and Anne Hills star in Full Sky Productions’ Chicago premiere of LOCAL WONDERS, a play with songs, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue.  The production previews November 27, opens December 2, and runs through January 9, 2011. is territory inhabited by and emotionally appropriated by Ted Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer winner. Here his beautifully written celebration of life amid death, “Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps,” receives a rich musical transformation in a Chicago premiere that suits the season like a snowfall.

Director Virginia Smith and performer Paul Amandes find rich opportunities for their songs and stories to further explore this memoir of a middle-aged poet in southeastern Nebraska confronting his mortality after a diagnosis of carcinoma of the mouth. That mortality consists of memories that are rooted in these rolling hills and revealed in songs like “So This is Nebraska” and “The Empty House” that take Kooser’s anecdotes and make them memories into which we can all tap.

Kooser’s medical wake-up call makes him look hard at everything around him and gauge what’s solid enough to survive this threat to everything he is and was. His daily walks, which take him back as well as forward, yield observations that serve the ten songs that Amandes and Anne Hills, as his stalwart wife Kathleen, perform with grace and passion.

Kooser describes himself as an emotional hoarder: He seems to have lost nothing in his memories of the elephant that a beloved uncle collected, the monarch butterflies that seem to disappear on their trek to Mexico, the parents who prepared him for more than they could have guessed at back then, and the way in which feelings move us far from where we started the way tectonic plates do the earth.

LW Anne and Paul Standing (L-R):  Anne Hills and Paul Amandes star in Full Sky Productions’ Chicago premiere of LOCAL WONDERS, a play with songs, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue.  The production previews November 27, opens December 2, and runs through January 9, 2011. It’s this tough-loving reappraisal that allows Amandes’ poet to move toward, not that awful word “closure,” but a kind of appreciative acceptance of the “local wonders” that include him. (It also helps that his cancer goes into remission.) As he says, “If you can awaken inside the familiar and discover it new, you need never leave home…” Nebraska can be a destination as much as an origin.

This is a show to be cherished for its specifics. The details are just what a master poet would want to share and skilled musician interpreters like Amandes and Hill (who play guitar and banjo), and, on piano and vocals, James Robinson-Parran love to deliver.

Not all of this inspired memory-mongering is equally compelling but, no question, it’s presented with all the honesty and humanity of its source.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

LW Trio 1 (L-R): Anne Hills, James Robinson Parran, and Paul Amandes of Full Sky Productions’ Chicago premiere of LOCAL WONDERS, a play with songs, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue.  The production previews November 27, opens December 2, and runs through January 9, 2011

LW Paul Amandes 1: Paul Amandes stars in Full Sky Productions’ Chicago premiere of LOCAL WONDERS, a play with songs, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue.  The production previews November 27, opens December 2, and runs through January 9, 2011. `\ LW Paul and Anne 1