All the Northland’s a Stage (sometimes)

by Sam Black

Olaf and Inge at first encounter
Olaf and Inge at first encounter
Jon Hegge(Alvin) drives Robert Berdahl(Olaf) and Ann Michels (Inge) to the farm
Jon Hegge(Alvin) drives Robert Berdahl(Olaf) and Ann Michels (Inge) to the farm

It was a delightful week for theater, and I caught some very special moments. The high point of my week was driving over to the Wilcox Theater (in the Reif Center) in Grand Rapids for a traveling musical. Back in 1982, Bemidji author Will Weaver published a story titled A Gravestone Made of Wheat. The story actually deals with the legal obstacles to burying a loving wife on the farm property where she had lived since coming to the United States. Then in 2005, a movie with the title Sweet Land appeared, envisioned and directed by Ali Selim, from the Twin Cities.

The movie recreates the younger couple, Olaf the Norwegian on the farm in Minnesota, Inge - a German woman who innocently comes abroad for the purpose of marrying Olaf. The couple overcome many challenges in the aftermath of World War I in northwestern Minnesota. Having seen the movie, Twin Cities theater director Perrin Post decided that a stage musical was clearly in order for this story. She put together a script, with lyrical help from Laurie Flanagan Hegge, then contacted San Francisco violinist/composer Dina Maccabee, who accepted the project.

Finally, in the spring of 2017, Sweet Land, the Musical appeared on stage at The History Theater in downtown St. Paul. On October 9, this charming musical stopped in Grand Rapids for a single performance in my backyard, so to speak. Sweet Land is actually what I would call a folk opera, because it’s the music that propels the plot. Inge arrives to find Olaf shy and busy with the farm. Her immigration papers do not arrive, which irritates the county judge and the local Lutheran pastor for delightfully different reasons. Ultimately, Inge convinces Olaf that she has come to be his wife and partner, and the relationship is more valuable than any legalities can interrupt.

Ann Michels is beautiful and wise as Inge Altenberg, as she slowly learns English, and convinces the ‘Norwegian bachelor farmer,’ played by Robert Berdahl, that what matters is being together. Near the end of the first act they sing You Took a Bath, an amusing hint of the increasing intimacy they will explore in act two. When We Are Married, shortly followed by Call Me Inge Torvik, are two lovely ballads that move beyond the legalities imposed during Pay the Price and The Auction. 

A six-piece band, led by pianist/accordionist Jay Albright keeps an energetic pace to the role of music in the tough life of Minnesota farming. Jon Andrew Hegge is hilarious as the more seasoned farmer/friend Alvin,  and Tod Petersen is quite a stuffy character, sharing with his rigid Lutheran morality that Inge is Not One of Us. Inge persists in her dreams, however,  and the play ends as it began with this Land So Sweet. Perrin Post’s direction makes this musical on tour very captivating. The stage only changes minimally, except as the lyrics move from one emotional interchange to the next. We are quickly drawn into the story because all the characters are truly convinced that they are real, and we sense the heartbreak, the frustration, and the joy of carving a new world out of the Minnesota prairie.

Thanks to the Reif Center and The History Theater for travelling around with this story. In Grand Rapids, Will Weaver dropped in and shared a pre-show series of comments about his experiences with A Gravestone Made of Wheat. Driving back and forth to Grand Rapids was never sweeter.