As summer reaches its peak – sweltering heat, kids headed to the pool, and students out for break – many families are considering taking a vacation. There are as many styles of vacations as there are families, but beginning somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, a trend emerged: the road trip. Perhaps the family wanted to visit relatives, head to a national park, or see the American countryside. Coming from an age where air travel was an extravagance for the majority of families and gasoline was under the equivalent of $1.50 per gallon, the family road trip has become a staple of American middle class. Out of this culture spawned icons: the over-packed station wagon, kids fighting in the backseat, and “Don’t make me turn this car around!,” to name a few.
The latest production from the Celebration Company at The Station Theater is a play that attempts to discuss the value of that particular American ideal: Leaving Iowa by Tim Clue and Spike Manton, directed by David Barkley. In the play, Don Browning, played by Jeremiah Lowry, is attempting to spread his father’s ashes when he learns that Grandma’s house is now a grocery store. As he drives around the American Midwest, Don spends time talking – to his father’s remains, to himself, and to the audience. During the heartfelt discussion with his father, he recounts a particular example of the annual Browning Family Vacation – a lengthy and often tortuous journey with the loving yet neurotic father, a witty and confidant mother, a conniving daughter, and a nervous son.
Regardless of what scene was onstage, the play remained focused on that family. The acting from the cast portrayed the family as one steeped in itself – full of knowing looks and inside references that the audience quickly became a involved in. Like with many families, every conversation on stage was fast-paced and usually lighthearted. Moments shifted between Krystal Moya’s comedic overacting as the endlessly controlling Sis, to Chris Taber’s subtle portrayal of Mom, with each line delivered with knowing smirk as if to say “Mother knows best.” The central cast put forth not only their own characters’ personalities, but the family’s personality. This is the acting challenge with every family-centric play: to play the character and to play the family. There were weaker moments, when acting seemed disparate, such as when the characters tried to decide whether to go to a museum or an Amish sale. That said, there were also moments in which the cast blew the audience away, like the quiet believability of Sis’ “I love you brother” or the rage of Dad yelling at his two bickering children.
The play’s foundation – a family that has fun and shouts together – might seem like only the family is relevant. For the first few minutes of the show, I had a mounting fear that it would be two hours of the same four people in the same positions. This was joyfully not the case. The character acting of the ensemble cast – Michael Murphy, John Tilford, Kyrsten Ostrom, and Nancy Keener – was what brought this production together. Of particular note was Murphy’s portrayal of a one-handed hog farmer, Bob, who brought out one of the audience’s first big laughs by offering a handshake. Another noteworthy moment was Ostrom’s character, an assistant at a Civil War reenactment – pulling everything from notes to tennis balls from inside her period style dress. The hilarity and comedy brought to a sometimes tense family by the myriad of offbeat characters was a delight.
Memorable moments from the actors are a big plus for a production, but it’s often better to not notice the technical side at all. The costume changes between the main cast were noticeable, though minimally distracting. The costume designer, Sheri Doyle, was faced with a challenge from the start – how does an actor switch between portraying a child in the backseat to a grown man narrating from the front seat without ever leaving stage? The light and sound designers for the show also deserve a note – the play was a near constant stream of shifts and cues designed to highlight the comedy of the acting, including a side splitting moment where Dad slams the car horn when Mom is driving, all in slow motion, set to the battle song O Fortuna, and doused in red and purple lighting.
Between the familiar caricatures of family members we all have, the creative use of light and sound to augment high points in the storytelling, and the intimate feeling that comes with any black box theater experience, the Celebration Company managed to earn big laughs from its audience. Throughout this play though, moments shifted quickly between drama, comedy, and tension. There were hilarious jokes, but there were moments when a palpable awkwardness emerged from the script. At one moment, the audience was cracking up because Don and Sis are fighting in the back seat and at the next, Dad was yelling, screaming, making the entire audience feel slightly like a chastised child. While the fun of Leaving Iowa is certainly memorable, no one wants to be present for all of any family’s most intimate moments – real or fictional. The play walks a thin line between intrusion and inclusion, a line that it sometimes crosses. This feeling makes it an honest play, a play hard to categorize simply as “American drama” or “family comedy.” Expect the full range of emotions of a family vacation from Leaving Iowa and all the fun, tension, and strange memories that those words involve.
Leaving Iowa continues playing until July 2 at the Station Theatre with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Tickets are $10 for shows on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and $15 for Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling (217) 384-4000.
Andrew Adams is a recently christened adult, with a penchant towards the blending of arts, sciences, and plant-derived stimulants mixed with milk and a shot of Hazlenut. He can be reached by email and on Twitter @magictaser – fair warning: that account is known for politics and snark.
All photos by Scott Wells
Scott is a U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Illinois. He has been a photographer and writer for Smile Politely since March of 2015.