Atina Diffley grew up on a farm, but dreamed of combining that rural world with a career as a jazz pianist—”a white Thelonious Monk of the fields,” as she self-deprecatingly recalls in her 2012 memoir, Turn Here—Sweet Corn. Instead, she found a different path to composing a life. Diffley’s story, adapted by Jim Stowell in a solo show now in a world premiere with Saltbox Theatre Collective, provides not just a showcase for storytelling virtuoso Megan Wells as Diffley. It’s also precisely what anyone who is thinking of giving up against the powers-that-be in these dark days needs to hear.
Diffley achieved notoriety when she took on Koch Industries in 2006 over their plans to install a pipeline over her family’s organic farm in Minnesota, known as the Gardens of Eagan. But that battle comes in the second act of this quietly moving story (directed by Scott Jones) of one ordinary woman’s ability to find extraordinary strength in her family, her community, and herself.
From a failed early marriage to the loss of the first farm she and her second husband, Martin, worked on together (a farm that had been in his family for five generations), Stowell’s script and Wells’s performance honor the defeats that tempered Diffley’s resolve to stand up to corporate predation. Losing land to a public school (as was the case with the Diffleys’ first farm) is one thing. Seeing it carved down the middle by a corporation that paid the largest-ever pollution fine in the history of federal environmental laws? Inconceivable.
Except of course that we’re so used to seeing corporations get their way that we hold our breath for Wells’s Atina as she decides that she and her family won’t be displaced and dislocated again from the land they lovingly nurtured to achieve their “OSP,” or Organic System Plan. We cheer when she finds Paula Maccabee, the one environmental attorney in the Twin Cities who hasn’t already been put on retainer by Koch Industries as a blockading maneuver against lawsuits. And we start to believe, as Diffley does, that winning is possible.
Diffley’s voice, as translated by Stowell and embodied by Wells, is poetic and spiritual about the power of the land without ever becoming precious. “Farm soil is a wild animal held in captivity,” she observes. And like a wild animal, it can react unpredictably to weather, and be destroyed by the bulldozers of domestication.
Yet Diffley also acknowledges that she and her family are also displacing wilderness, such as the pack of coyotes that used to run through the abandoned old farm they decide to restore after losing their first. Respect for the land and its history runs through her story, which also resonates with wit, warmth, and a quiet steadying belief in the power of resistance. “Terror does not always mean run,” Wells’s Diffley reminds us. “It can mean act.” Going into this watershed year, I can’t imagine better advice, or a more reassuring presence to deliver it than the incandescent Wells. v