'Leaving Iowa' takes comedic yet poignant journey

OKOBOJI, IOWA -- A sentimental journey masquerading as a comedy -- that's "Leaving Iowa," this week's show at Okoboji Summer Theatre (OST). Mostly geared for laughs, "Leaving Iowa" nevertheless speaks the often unspoken truths behind family dynam...

OKOBOJI, IOWA -- A sentimental journey masquerading as a comedy -- that's "Leaving Iowa," this week's show at Okoboji Summer Theatre (OST).

Mostly geared for laughs, "Leaving Iowa" nevertheless speaks the often unspoken truths behind family dynamics and reveals the regrets we are left with when love and appreciation go unexpressed.

This work of Chicago-based writers/performers Tim Clue and Spike Manton premiered in early 2004 and, if one is not bothered by a few mild obscenities, could be appropriately viewed by audiences from "10 to 110," as Clue has said.

Kyle Groff, a six-year OST actor, ably portrays the central character Don, who has returned to his hometown of Winterset, Iowa, for a short family visit. Now a hotshot newspaper columnist in Boston, Don has largely pushed his Iowa upbringing to the past, along with unresolved feelings about his father, in particular.

Having missed his father's retirement party several years earlier -- not to mention his father's funeral three years before -- Don offers to fulfill his father's last wish to have his ashes scattered at grandma and grandpa's house in Mount Union, Iowa.


Complications arise when Don discovers the home place is now a supermarket, and Don is forced to continue his road trip in search of emotional resolution.

While all that sounds fairly heavy, maybe even depressing, the delivery is anything but.

Iowa jests run rampant, and with a nearly full house Tuesday night, the presumably dominant Iowan crowd had no trouble laughing at all the jokes on them. For instance, Don admits to his mom and sister (the latter referred to only as "Sister" or "Sweetpea"), "None of us is very good at saying how we feel --after all, we're from Iowa."

"Adventures in Iowa are like steep hills -- they're hard to come by," asserts another character early in the show.

Dad's ashes have been stashed atop the basement fuse box for the past three years, and Don's Mom shudders, "I could be arrested for something like this -- well, at least humiliated."

Don's journey is interrupted by frequent flashbacks to the weeklong summer vacations of his youth, with mom, dad and sister all along for a ride in the family sedan. Groff very smoothly transitions between young Don and adult Don, with help in the process from a spotlight and frozen poses by the other actors.

Student actor Rachel Hartmann is a credible Sister to Don, whining and hassling her way through girlhood in a manner that (somewhat disconcertingly) reminded this writer of herself as a younger sister -- and of the 10-year-old female currently at home. Her sisterly ploys were all too familiar; when she slyly whomps her brother's head with a book and he hits her in defense, he ends up with all the blame.

Don's Mom, acted by student Ana Hagedorn, has (as do most moms) a somewhat thankless role. She is largely required to react or reassure, while Hartmann as Sister gets the fun of exhibiting fidgety girlish energy. Hagedorn somehow manages to adapt her body language to be believable as someone decades older, which is necessary since Don's Dad is played by middle-aged guest artist Steve Taft.


Taft, an associate professor of theater at the University of Northern Iowa, completely inhabits Dad and, as he sometimes posthumously observes Don's journey from the stage's shadows, summons thoughts of characters from Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."

Four supporting actors enliven the show with their several bit parts and steal nearly every scene they are in; in fact, as the show progressed, laughter ensued when those actors merely appeared, in anticipation of their ability to elicit hoots. At one point, audience members chortled at a depiction of Grant Wood's "American Gothic" brought to life.

Second-year OST student actor Sam Cordes led the way with his terrific comic timing and deadpan expressions, plus his amusing parody of a jaded University of Iowa professor.

OST's artistic director Beth Leonard bears directing credit, while Nick Shaw is the guest scenic designer. Shaw's set includes a painted background of green cornfields under blue skies, and replicas of old roadside signs advertising tourist traps -- "The Prehistoric Gardens in Iowa's Rainforest" -- and state welcome banners complete the look.

The script by Clue and Manton provides satisfying, if somewhat predictable, resolution. Don ultimately realizes that despite his dad's foibles, love of mundane historical spots and scorn for RVs and the Wisconsin Dells ("All that place is, is a bunch of overpriced shenanigans," lectures Dad repeatedly), Dad was the stable center of Don's family and the anchor that enabled him to embark on his own life's adventures.

One Tuesday night theatergoer whose party enjoyed the show was Worthington resident and longtime OST patron Marty Rickers. Interestingly, Rickers provided the winning entry in the 1963 OST contest to name the Boji Bantam Theatre. His prize -- a season's pass to the OST plays -- was a great promotion, as Rickers regularly attends OST shows to this day.

"Leaving Iowa" runs at OST through Sunday. Next week, OST presents the musical "The 1940s Radio Hour."

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