"Adventures in Iowa are like steep hills ' pretty hard to come by."
Also hard to come by are humorous plays about the Midwest that don't reduce Midwesterners to chirpy, folksy caricatures. Fortunately Tim Clue and Spike Manton's Leaving Iowa (at the Overture Center Playhouse through Aug. 27) achieves just this with its smart, funny and at times poignant look at what it means to grow up in (and ultimately leave) small-town Iowa.
During a trip home to Iowa, Don (Otis Fine), a Boston journalist, decides to finally return his dead father's ashes to his childhood home in Mount Union, only to find that said home has been replaced by a supermarket. This bleak revelation incites Don's interstate quest for an appropriate final resting place for his dad, a journey that evokes memories of family road trips past.
Though the story of laying one's parent to rest is a potential minefield of maudlin, the script travels deftly from laugh-out-loud to poignant and back again, its pathos always tempered by humor. It's packed with great one-liners ("None of us is very good at saying what we feel ' after all, we're from Iowa") and insights into a Midwestern experience, replete with "Rice Krispie treats the size of cement blocks." The audience's laughs of recognition were hearty and frequent.
Though all the expected Midwestern types are in attendance, from the aggressively cheerful mom to the pathologically chatty waitress, they are played with an originality and generosity that transcend mere stereotype. Grant Krause as the tirelessly enthusiastic, selfless father with a penchant for all things historical and Angela Bullard as the "unstoppable helping machine" mother both give excellent performances. As Don's older sister, Cindy Tegtmeyer displays her chops as a physical comedian, capturing the raw energy of childhood, while Fine, as the more reserved though keenly observant younger sibling, shows us glimpses of the writer he will one day become. The remarkably versatile Howie Johnson, whose multiple roles include Grandpa, Mr. Johnson, Uncle Phil, a cynical professor, an Amish man, a mechanic, a hotel manager, a state trooper, a waiter and Cousin Jerry, brings specificity and hilarity to each of his characters.
Yes, the types and jokes are here, but much more than just an in-joke for Midwesterners, Leaving Iowa is about appreciating those people who are generally rather reluctant to call attention to themselves. It's a love letter to practical parents and their everyday sacrifices, a valentine to all the unsung heroes of the flyover states.
The production transcends mere stereotypes.