Remember family vacations—in an earlier era, piling into a station wagon or a big old Chevy Bel Air (or something similar), later in mini-vans, and now in SUVs? While the mode of transportation may have changed, it’s probably a safe bet the family dynamics really haven’t.
It’s well-staged, beautifully performed, and has some wincingly funny moments. . .
But ‘Leaving Iowa’ is more than the easy laughs about being trapped with the ‘rents, with the sibs, with sketchy radio reception, with long stretches of bland highway, punctuated by the excitement of a stop for gas and a convenience store (SNACKS! YES!).
It’s about the bonds forged during those trips and the values that snuck in through a kind of mobile osmosis when one is forced to deal with the family in very close quarters. It’s about where we come from and where we go and the bargains and compromises we make along the way. And, it’s about surviving a man who won’t ask for directions—Dad.
Efficiently staged at the James Lee Community Center’s theatre in Fairfax, this is a charming coda to their season, just in time for vacation season. It’s a gentle show, pre-cell phone, when people used maps and mile markers to find their way, and strangers could always be found to take a family snapshot for you.
Written by Tim Clue and Spike Manton, and directed here by Julie Janson, the action starts when a Boston-based writer returns home to Iowa for a birthday party for his three-year-old nephew. While he’s home, he’s determined to fulfill his father’s last wishes and scatter his ashes. Finally—it’s been three years since dad died and his mother finally unearths him from the root cellar—on a shelf behind the mushrooms on top of the fuse box. So, promising to be back in a couple of hours, in time for dinner and cake, Don Browning (Bobby Welsh) takes off in his dad’s old car, waving goodbye to his sister (Lindsey June) and mother (Amy Griffin). He’s going to take dad to their grandparent’s old farm and scatter the ashes beyond the big red barn.
But when he arrives there, there’s a grocery store and parking lot where the farm used to be. This changes everything.
That moment is also the catalyst that starts the drive down memory lane, interspersed with adult Don’s interactions with an odd mix of characters he meets on this marathon that the ash-scattering turns into. Suffice it to say, he’s missing dinner and cake.
We get to spend time with his dad (Michael Bagwell) and his mother, and his sister as they go on various trips throughout the year. Both Bagwell and Griffin give beautifully calibrated performances as the parents on these road trips. They are bedrock in the best sense.
Griffin and Welsh play Don and his sister as the tweens/young teens they were and as the adults they’ve become, and they do an especially believable job of portraying the younger Brownings on these road trips. The dynamics of siblings—the manipulation, the teasing, the joining of forces when needed—it’s all there, played out in the back seat of an old car with Iowa plates (a nice touch of verisimilitude in this production).
All of the other characters, and there are quite a few, are played by Danielle Comer (six characters), Michael Schwartz (eight characters) and Charlene Sloan (eight characters). The three actors did a smashing job with the lightning fast changes of costumes and characters; if at times the characters seemed a little broad and forced, that seemed more the script—it’s hard to give any depth or nuance in less than two minutes in some cases. But all three displayed amazing versatility and real comedic timing.
The staging was kept simple—the main prop was the car front facing the audience. A large screen was set up behind which helped to document the various places the “adventurous Brownings” stopped at on their trip; some of the funniest moments were the “photographs” of the cast at various places that popped up to memorialize those years of vacations. I think we’ve all seen those expressions in the photographic evidence of our own family vacations, even in this age of selfies. Chip Gertzog designed the projections; Beth Gilles-Whitehead handled properties; and Brian O’Connor provided set design.
This is a nostalgic show, even if the script is not particularly subtle (the spot where Don finally goes to leave the ashes is a plot point you see coming), and worth seeing. It’s well-staged, beautifully performed, and has some wincingly funny moments (because you can probably recognize those moments from past road trips of your own—ouch).
Running Time: 100 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
“Leaving Iowa” runs through June 15, 2019 by Providence Players of Fairfax, at the James Lee Community Center, Fairfax, VA. For more information, please click here.