Leaving Iowa and
Also see Elizabeth's reviews of Get Ready and Taking Steps
Old Log Theater Leaving Iowa
Part of my youth is tied up in the car trips we took most summers. We'd leave the comforts of suburban Minnesota for exotic locales like the Black Hills, Winnipeg and the Upper Peninsula. At the time, it all seemed frightfully dull and uncomfortable – trapped for endless hours in the car, away from the comforts of home, with only the thought of Wall Drug showing up in the next few hours as comfort. Looking back, this was probably the longest stretch of time I got to spend with my hard working parents, which is something to cherish.
Playwrights Tim Clue and Spike Manton reach into the collective memories of Middle America in Leaving Iowa, an intriguing new play that gets a solid reading at the Old Log Theater. At turns funny and touching, the show makes an honest attempt to deal with the conflicting emotions found within families and how our perceptions of events can change over the years.
The story follows Don Browning, a big time Boston columnist who has returned to his native Iowa for a baptism. While there, he realizes he has unfinished business – his father's ashes are still at the home, years after his death. In an effort to make amends for long-ago conflicts, Don decides to take the remains to his grandparent's old home, as his father wished.
Of course, things don't turn out as planned and Don ends up on a two-day journey across the Midwest, trying to find the right place to bring his father home. All the while, his memories take him back to one memorable family vacation to Hannibal, Missouri, which eventually draws Don to the perfect spot.
Leaving Iowa is at its best when delving into the minutiae of the family car trip – the long stretches of boredom, conflicts with siblings and the tourist traps that litter the path. And it really digs deep into the characters you can meet along the way, from stiff historical re-enactors to the sometimes-scary folks who work in small-town cafes.
A cast of five tackles all of this with aplomb, starting with Terry Lynn Carlson as Don. Splitting his time between his adult and child selves, Carlson crafts unique personalities for both, but also shows us the connection between the younger and older person. Jennifer Maren does an excellent job as Don's rival, his sister, while Ellen Karsten is terrific as the family matriarch. Fred J. Wagner has a difficult but rewarding part, playing all of the eccentrics the family and Don meet along the way.
Yet the real center here is longtime Old Log vet Steve Shaffer as the Dad. He never falls into the one-note grumpy dad character. Instead, there's a lot of nuance here, as Shaffer lets us see so many of the pieces that make the character tick. It's a terrific performance that really gives the show much of its heart.
Playwright Clue directs with a solid hand, though the show – like the last day of a long road trip – does wear out its welcome near the end, going on a couple of tangents when it should stay be focused on the task at hand. That aside, Leaving Iowa is a rewarding journey – one that goes beyond nostalgia and into the very nature of families and the joys and experiences that bind us together.
Leaving Iowa runs through Sept. 15 at the Old Log Theater, 5185 Meadville Street Greenwood. For tickets and more information, call (952) 474-5951 or visit www.oldlog.com.
The Kander and Ebb musical (with book by Terrence McNally) takes place in an unnamed South American prison. The two cellmates come from different worlds. Valentin is a revolutionary, imprisoned and tortured in an effort to get him to reveal the rest of his comrades. Molina is a gay man captured on "morals" charges. The story follows their relationship and the changes within both characters, but also evokes Molina's epic fantasy world, where he both escapes and finds courage and strength. This is personified by the films of Aurora, an old movie star whose films Molina devoured as a child. By the end, even the hardened Valentin draws strength from the image of Aurora.
The cast is solid to excellent, with Edward Williams, Jr. giving a terrific performance as Molina. Tim Kuehl is also good as Valentin, and the two have nice chemistry together. Stacy Lindell does a great job as Aurora, tackling a variety of musical and acting styles in her different roles. While the characters are well nuanced, the prison warden and the guards are far too one-note evil to be taken seriously.
Director Steven Meerdink and designer Joshua Stevens do a fine job with the theater's small space, but Kiss of the Spider Woman is a show that really needs a large stage and epic set pieces to make Molina's fantasies come to life. Even with these limitations, it's a strong production from beginning to end, one that draws out much of the power within the script and reminds the audience that oppression is always with us, and sometimes fantasies can provide the strength we need to fight and survive.
Kiss of the Spider Woman runs through June 24 at Hennepin Stages, 824 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis. For more information, call (612) 373-5665 or visit www.aboutmmt.org.