By C.B. AdamsContributing WriterAct Inc.’s family-friendly production of Leaving Iowa, written by the multi-talented team of Tim Clue and Spike Morgan, feels like an adaptation of a personal essay. You know, the kind that appears around Father’s Day in the New York Times‘s Sunday Review with a title like, “Me and My Old Man.”
John Steinbeck took to the highways with his dog and ended up with a book called Travels With Charlie. Leaving Iowa, a memory play that weaves past and present, could just as well be titled Travels With My Dad — a mildly ironic title perhaps, given that the narrator of this play is carrying around his father’s memory and his burial ashes.
Befitting its authors’ professional achievements as motivational speakers and improv/stand-up comedians, Leaving Iowa offers snappy, quick-paced and engaging dialogue that is well timed and sprinkled liberally with one-liners and other comedic accoutrements.
As an entertainment, it shares much with a good-quality sitcom in the vicinity of Home Improvement. It’s approach and themes are milder versions of those in A Christmas Story(movie or musical version), which was itself a softer version of humorist Jean Shepard’s novel In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.
Photo by John LambLeaving Iowa can feature as many as 27 performers by casting multiple character parts separately. Director Lori Renna nicely pared this production to just six by making use of the quick-changing talents of CeCe Day and John Emery.
Part of the fun of this production was anticipating whom Day and Emery would be playing the next time they emerged from the wings of the in-the-round stage at the Black Box Theater in Lindenwood’s J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts.The four other parts, played by John Reidy as Dad, Colleen Heneghan as Mom, Hunter Frederick as Don Browning and Amanda Brasher as Sis, also required the actors to portray their characters in the present and past. Hunter and Brasher delightfully transformed from young backseat nattering chatterboxes to their more mature but no less competitive adult counterparts. The play is projected through the lens of the son, Don Browning. Hunter’s likeable, identifiable and approachable portrayal of a son running the gamut of fond remembrances, regret and contrition hit his mark with ease every time.
Heneghan and Reidy as Mom and Dad respectively provided a solid base from which the rest of the play revolves. After all, doesn’t it seem like our parents never change? This was especially true as veteran actor Reidy play Dad both as a real live character as well as a tingle-inducing memory-ghost in some scenes.
As the actors bopped from scene to scene along the play’s extended time line, their efforts were well supported by the staging provided by Lori Potts, scene design by Tim Grumich, lighting design by Michael Sullivan , costume design by Jane Sullivan and sound design by Kaitlynn Ferris. To this team’s credit, all of these elements were quietly woven into the play and provided just the right of effect to convey each scene. Sometimes, as in this case, not standing out is outstanding — and the right directorial choice.More than once, the family in Leaving Iowa piles into an imaginary car and hits a road that is sometimes metaphorical and sometimes actual. As the play ends, with Don finally finding an appropriate resting place for his father’s ashes, its resolution leaves the audience with a feeling both wistful, amused, satisfied, and…well, happy. You know that look a dog has with its head sticking out the window of a moving car, as if its smiling?Yeah, Leaving Iowa leaves you like that.
Photo by John LambAct Inc. presents “Leaving Iowa” June 14 through June 22. Performances June 21-22 are Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Emerson Black Box Theatre at J. Scheidegger Cener for the Arts on the Lindenwood campus in St. Charles. For more information or tickets, visit www.actincstl.com
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.