On the road again
Jackson, CA 95642
Summer is the season for road trips, and Leaving Iowa is a Midwestern heartland comedy that dishes up two different journeys, which come layered together over the course of the play.
In memory (still green), we ride along on an archetypal family vacation, circa 1960, as Dad drives the wife and kids some 250 miles from Winterset, Iowa, to Hannibal, Missouri, a river city that was boyhood home of the great Mark Twain, who would later mature to manhood and ply the newspaper trade in a more familiar river city called Sacramento. Leaving Iowa even includes a few read-aloud snippets of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which—given this foothill production’s location in adjacent Amador County—is a very nice touch. But getting back to Leaving Iowa: En route to Hannibal, family serenity is interrupted by sibling rivalry in the back seat (all played for laughs), a stop at a tacky roadside tourist trap and other diversions.
In the present, there’s a bittersweet (but still comic) journey, in which the now-middle-aged son, who has found fame as a journalist in Boston, drives into the Iowa countryside with an urn containing his late father’s ashes. The goal is to fulfill Dad’s wish by scattering the ashes in the vicinity of the house where Dad grew up. But the son discovers that his father’s childhood home has been eradicated to make way for a new Walmart-type megastore, and a series of picaresque new road adventures ensues.
The show has a strong cast. Georgann Wallace (who’s been seen in shows at Capital Stage and the Sacramento Theatre Company) plays Mom; Kelley Ogden (Capital Stage, Big Idea, KOLT Run Creations) plays Sis; veteran community actor Philip Pittman (usually seen in supporting roles) gets a prominent part as Dad; Brandon Rapoza (another community veteran) is basically the lead as Don. Erin Renfree and Clark Thurlo pop up again and again (in different costumes, nicely designed by Nancy Street) as colorful local characters encountered along the way (a farmer and his wife, a waitress and her busboy, etc.).
This show has some parallels to others that we’ve seen in the recent past. Last December’s Northport Cottage at the B Street featured a similar Midwestern car trek with character episodes along the way, but Leaving Iowa is less a philosophical and more of a situation comedy, with the kids in the back seat. There’s also a resemblance to Tuesdays With Morrie (at STC a while back), with a younger man fondly recalling time spent with a wiser, older man, now passed on.
The shortcoming is that playwrights Tim Clue and Spike Manton have given the family relationships that underpin the play very little depth. It would be nice to know a bit more about how Dad developed his oft-expressed fascination with Iowa history, or get a peek into Mom’s soul (in addition to her penchant for making sure travelers leave home with “crispy treats”). Astute direction by Julie Anchor and good performances provide some compensation, but the bottom line is that this script doesn’t have much meat on its bones—the story’s winsome, white-bread charm notwithstanding.
Appropriately, though, this lighthearted production involves a bit of a road trip for Sacramento residents—a pleasant drive into the foothills, where the show is staged outdoors in a lovely amphitheater.