Ash Land floats on dusty dreams of Cinderella
All theater relies on the imagination of the audience to bring it to life. Even the most finely realized set creation leaves something out.
Transatlantic Love Affair does more than just acknowledge these limitations; the company embraces them at every turn. There are no elaborate sets — in fact, no sets at all — in this production of Ash Land, the remounted 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival hit presented as Illusion's annual Lights Up! show.
The Illusion stage is completely empty throughout the show, with only a backdrop for occasional impressionist scene setting. The play's Dust Bowl setting is instead brought to life by the talents of the eight performers, who not only take on the roles of the various townsfolk, but also serve as the scenery when needed — wheat waving in the wind, a creaking front door, a fancy motorcar. It's a style that has served Transatlantic Love Affair through a quartet of Fringe productions and three remounts at Illusion.
Through the careful and thoughtful direction of Diogo Lopes, this ensemble-crafted re-creation of the Cinderella story becomes a tale about saving a family farm in the depths of the Great Depression. The Stone family — John, Mary, and Ellie — have a good life on one of the homesteads around the town of Ash Land, tending the fields and animals. Happiness can't last forever, however, and Mary takes ill and dies. Her sour, chain-smoking sister Abigail enters the scene. The farm was in Mary's name, so Abigail, protecting her family investment, becomes a member of the household, marrying John and hectoring Ellie.
Outside, the drought grows worse. The residents become desperate, engaging in any scheme to bring rain from the skies. They begin to fall further and further behind on their mortgages, coming face to face with the bank patriarch William Crane, a hard-nosed businessman with a warmhearted son, James.
The Cinderella side of the story comes during a party at the Crane house. There, a plan to buy out the desperate farmers has been hatched, and Abigail has offered up the Stone property as the first bid. It is up to Ellie (with some help from the spirit of her mother) to set it all right. Naturally, James is the Prince Charming in this rendition.
The company of actors is almost the same as the one that staged the Fringe Festival production back in 2012. The one newcomer is Nick Wolf, who slips into the role of the young, benevolent banker, James. The lanky actor brings out all the awkward nervousness of the character, making him a winning — if a bit naive — creation.
The balance of the ensemble is strong as well, led by Adelin Phelps as Ellie and Derek Lee Miller as John. They build a strong bond as daughter and father, navigating tough times together. Isabel Nelson (Mary) and Heather Bunch (Abigail) provide solid anchors as the "good" and "bad" sides of the tale.
The revamped version carries forward most of the impact of the 2012 production. The gentle vibe that quietly turns to desperation is here, brought to life through simple images: wheat that waves freely in the wind becomes brittle and almost nonexistent later on; the body language and tone of the different characters shift as the drought stretches on and on with no sign of an end. Musician Harper Zwicky adds additional texture via an electric slide guitar.
The play's languid pace means it takes a while to get going, which wasn't an issue in the tighter time frame of the Fringe production. Still, the extra moments help to deepen the characters and breathe more life into the illusionary town the actors bring to life on stage.
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