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IT's 'Leaving Iowa' bypasses heartache and veers into sitcom territory

What does Iowa mean to you? (Putting aside, for the moment, the Wildcats football season.)

There's something about the American Midwest that makes it a potent symbol in theater, whether it's in the plucky optimism of State Fair and The Music Man, or in the poignancy of Our Town. The symbolism is drawn from images of the region's isolated rural communities, the fertility of its farmland and its purported tenacity in sticking to a traditional way of life.

All these themes are given a light touch in Leaving Iowa, now playing at the Invisible Theatre. For Don, the play's central character, Iowa symbolizes both everything he has tried to forget about his childhood, and everything he can't escape.

Don (Roberto Guajardo) is a journalist, living in Boston; he's returned to his hometown of Winterset, Iowa—the birthplace of John Wayne, as we are reminded throughout the play. It's been years since he's visited, and he's only planning to be there for a day in order to attend his nephew's baptism. But that plan is abandoned when he discovers that his father's ashes have been sitting in the basement for the three years since his death. Feeling guilty about missing the funeral, Don sets out on a quest to find his father the perfect resting place.

We get a taste of what Don has spent so much of his life running away from in a parallel journey, told in flashbacks, of a childhood family road trip to Hannibal, Mo.—the home of Mark Twain. Young Don is packed into the backseat with his Sis (Susan Kovitz), a lying, whining, stealing manipulator who manages to be far more charming than her quiet older brother. She is clearly the parents' favorite, and any plot she hatches ends up winning their approval.

Don's mom (Victoria McGee) is of the domesticated variety. She's drawn to Amish craft fairs, and she doles out suckers and Rice Krispies treats, along with largely unheeded advice. Don's dad is the motor of the family, a dreamer and a romantic, fascinated with the icons of the Midwest, and driven to create what is, in his mind, the perfect family vacation.

David Alexander Johnston, as Dad, is clearly the heart of this operation. A smiling whirlwind in plastic-framed glasses, his energy seems boundless. Whether raging against a slow-moving RV or waxing poetic about a historical road marker, his every action seems part of a great adventure. It's easy to see why Don would long for his father's approval, so often bestowed on his less-deserving sister.

As Don, Guajardo works well with the many challenges of his role. For one, he is required to play his character as both a child and a middle-age man. Puzzlingly, as a man, he seems a little too old, and as a child, he seems a little too young. But he works gamely with the material he is given, and engages the audience like a seasoned storyteller. However, Guajardo is never able to fully compensate for a problem that is common to most memory plays: The narrator simply isn't as interesting as anyone else on stage. Don is a brooding storm cloud presiding over an ensemble of brightly colored cartoon characters.

Kovitz is a scene-stealer as Sis. Of all the cast members, she is the most successful at making the transition between the younger and older versions of her character, aided in part by the near-demonic energy of young Sis. But even in the adult Sis, we can see the troublemaker inside. McGee makes the most of the thankless role of Mom, always part of the picture but never demanding attention. Toward the end of the play, she is finally allowed to disagree for once with her husband, and McGee plays the moment with moving understatement.

Lori Hunt and Terry Erbe, on the other hand, play nothing with understatement—they fill out the story with a seemingly endless stream of small-town eccentrics and caricatures, ranging from an overexcited Civil War re-enactor to a misanthropic English professor, and from a chatty diner waitress to a John Wayne-impersonating female auto mechanic. With each new appearance topping the last, their performances earn the biggest laughs of the evening.

Director Susan Claassen skillfully keeps her cast on the move, handling the proceedings with a suitably light touch. The material is, after all, a single-episode sitcom, not too far removed from The Wonder Years or A Christmas Story. But unlike those works, Leaving Iowa falters when it tries to cut closer to the heartache at the core of the story. Don's moments of crisis and self-realization in the second act are cut short, and we are quickly sent back on the road toward more quirky fun.

However, Don is upfront about his inability to express what he's feeling—"After all, we're from Iowa," he notes. The most eloquent symbol of Don's journey appears early in the first act: the image of adult Don driving through his hometown with the quiet ghost of his father in the backseat.

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