Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Local Wonders

"If you can awaken inside the familiar and discover it new, you need never leave home..."

Ted Kooser
Nebraskan and U.S. Poet Laureate 2004-06

Perhaps I hadn't quite learned this lesson.  Perhaps it was because it was that time of the year that required vacation - the lull before the work cycle storm of January.  Perhaps it was my restless mind seeking a rest and, like a homing pigeon, looking to the home of my youth and a chance to reconnect with friends from that time I missed the last time around.

Christmas is the season of eternal nostalgia - the season of scents remembered, of songs sung, of crunching snow, of lights and color, of musky midnight masses.  I needed an assist to prepare this year and when I saw that one old friend, Paul Amandes, was opening in a production called Local Wonders, based on a Kooser book, with music he wrote and a play he co-wrote with Virginia Smith, that fact became the anchor, the set piece for an excursion to Chicago in the dead of winter.

I'm a homer, so my bias and admiration for the artistic efforts of those I know is evident.  Still, this production touched me, in that quiet place that reflects and ponders and is as certain as the eternal cycle of the seasons.  I marveled at my friend's artistic maturity.

The 90 minute play with music is both particular and universal.  We follow the specific threads of Kooser's life as a Nebraskan, a writer suddenly faced with a cancer diagnosis.  This rut in life's road is examined as the facets of the man's life are revealed and rolled out through anecdote and song.

Kooser's Nebraska and his Nebraska life, that landscape shaped by storms, is detailed in all its particulars through the spoken word and song - - the tilt of its geography, the treehouse in the backyard and the child who leaves, the pair of geese that come and go with the seasons, the order and disruption of the organization of a man's tools, his very practical mother, the old highway 30, the uncle in his recliner, the old blue heron, a father's hands, monarchs blanketing a distant tree.  No detail too small, every rock and track observed and noted, the wrestling of human nature between the poet as writer/craftsman and the poet as celebrity.

The musical interludes wind throughout the narrative much like the course of the Platte River, with Anne Hills providing lilting lyrical support (big vocal biceps!) and sharp observations and particular contrasts as Kooser's wife and a cast of locals.  Despite the difficult nature of this type of multi-character assignment, the flow of the play and physical stage coverage allowed her to neatly evoke key players who interact with Kooser in a series of tilts from scene to scene.  Harmonic support, both as an actor and singer.

I needed to see it twice - it's densely aural - and richly textured.  For those friends who may live near Chicago - do see it.  Twice, if you can.  It leaves you with that warm feeling, that Christmas feeling of touching base with old familiar experiences, of small things now noticed like the first snowflake in a winter sky, of the promise of hope and magic that lies just out that open window in your own backyard.  Like leaving home to come home. 

You can order tickets here:



  1. You beat me to the punch on this one, Cris, and so beautifully (as usual). I had planned to put something up on Paul's show but I'm sure he, et al, will be thrilled with your words.

    Obviously you are in Chicago and I'm jealous. Both my brothers have been on Chicago stages this year and I will have missed both. Ah, life and its logistical limitations. But at least good friends like you are there to represent and you've done double duty by also providing the lovely write-up. I'll post it as well. Have a great Midwest visit.

  2. Cris - It was such a treat to be with you. What a wordsmith. Thanks for smithing something so warm for my li'l play. I am flattered and grateful. paul

  3. That was such a lovely tribute to your friends work. How wonderful that he is able to cultivate like that, his own imagination. I hope you got what you needed in Chicago - the nostalgia, the break, the away-ness that makes coming home sweeter, coming back to the drawing board more interesting. Sunshiny here. Bad cold though. And a big photo shoot of the family tomorrow. The season had me running in circles until I fell down the stairs, and then my head filled up with - well, I need not go into detail. You get the picture. I went until it was obvious I should not go anymore. Missing you and hoping you are enjoying the season out there in Chico.