If it were a hotel, Theatre in the Park’s pixilated production of Tim Clue and Spike Manton’s family-vacation comedy, Leaving Iowa, would easily earn the American Automobile Association’s coveted five-diamond rating. Under the sure-handed direction of TIP’s founder, executive and artistic director, and resident zany Ira David Wood III, Leaving Iowa nimbly navigates its way through a comic minefield, and gins up gales of laughter in the process — to mix metaphors — as successful Boston journalist Don Browning (played by Mark Olexik) belatedly returns to his Midwestern roots to keep a deathbed promise that he made to his Dad (Timothy Corbett) to scatter the old man’s ashes at his boyhood home.
When the curtain rises, it has been three years since Don’s father’s funeral — which Don was too busy to attend — and there’s now a grocery store sitting smack dab on the site of the old Browning family homestead. So, while Don is figuring out how to keep his promise to his old man — and appease his increasingly irritated Mom (Ann Davis) and big Sis (Kelly McConkey), who are none too happy with his procrastinating — he reminisces about the whirlwind Browning family vacations, during which the foursome visited a veritable Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not assortment of tourist attractions within driving distance of their Iowa home.
With Dad planted stolidly behind the wheel of a colorful two-dimensional cartoon car — ingeniously designed by Stephen J. Larson — and Mom backseat-driving while riding shotgun, big Sis and little Donny squabble and squirm in the backseat in a sibling rivalry run hilariously amok. Mark Olexik is cute as the whiny little brother and the grownup version of Don, who looks back with chagrin on the antics that so aggravated his sister and exasperated his parents. Kelly McConkey is a pip as the sneaky big sister, a control freak who really knew — and still knows — how to push Don’s buttons.
Ann Davis is amusing as Mom, who smoothed all the feathers ruffled during family vacations, but has begun to feel increasingly guilty about not forcing Don to come home sooner to carry out her dead husband’s dying wish; and Timothy Corbett is charming as Dad, an old four-eyed fusspot whose prickly public demeanor cannot completely conceal the loving heart that beats beneath the bluster, and compels him to try to restrict the family-vacation itinerary to historical, educational, wholesome, and uplifting tourism destinations, while his family would rather walk on the wild side at all of the flashy roadside tourist traps.
As funny as this foursome is, Leaving Iowa’s protean ensemble of two — Larry Evans and Randall Rickman — upstage them at just about every turn while portraying — with sublime silliness and great gusto — a knee-slapping array of Browning family relatives, farmers, Amish peddlers, a one-armed Civil War reenactor and his frantic sign-language interpreter, automobile mechanics, a waiter and waitress, etc. The laughs just keep on coming, and are often so loud that a second visit to the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre may be required to catch all of the zingers.
The ringmaster for this laugh-fest is director David Wood, who adds some gimmicks of his own, including a crowd-pleasing who-cut-the-cheese segment in the Browning family car? By casting two men, instead of a man and a woman (as indicated in the script) to play all the oddballs whom the Browning family encounters on their yearly odysseys, Wood has heightened the hilarity of Leaving Iowa. Watching the over-caffeinated sign-language interpreter (Randall Rickman in drag and a hideous wig) try to describe with flying fingers the hapless Civil War reenactor (Larry Evans) — whom Wood has made one-armed at the eleventh hour — fumble through his demonstration of the use of the bayonet is a real scream, and just one of the many laugh-out-loud moments that earn a Leaving Iowa a Bladder Alert warning, as in do not try to watch this show with a full bladder!
Scenic and lighting and projection designer Steve Larson and his wife, costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson, aid and abet the crackerjack cast and their imaginative director in any number of ways; and together the talented TIP cast and creative team make Leaving Iowa a trip that every Triangle theatergoer should take — probably more than once.
SECOND OPINION: April 18th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Zack Smith (who awarded the show 2 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/theatre-in-the-parks-large-and-loud-leaving-iowa/Content?oid=3049878; April 10th Raleigh, NC News 14 Carolina interview with Mark Olexik, conducted by Marti Skold: http://triangle.news14.com/content/656094/in-depth–mark-olexik–lead-actor-in–leaving-iowa-; and April 3rd Raleigh, NC WRAL-TV interview with Ira David Wood III: http://www.wral.com/entertainment/video/10940387/#/vid10940387. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the April 12th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/04/leaving-iowa-at-theatre-in-the-park-is-a-hilarious-and-touching-comedy-about-family-vacations/.)
Theatre in the Park presents LEAVING IOWA at 7:30 p.m. April 27 and 28, and 3 p.m. April 29 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $22 ($16 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: 919-831-6058 or http://www.etix.com/.
NOTE: The April 27th performance is SOLD OUT.
The Play: http://leavingiowa.com/ (official website), http://www.dramaticpublishing.com/p1907/Leaving-Iowa/product_info.html (Dramatic Publishing), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Clue (Wikipedia).
Spike Manton: http://www.spikemanton.com/ (official website).
Ira David Wood III: http://theatreinthepark.com/theatre_staff_board.html (Theatre in the Park bio) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_David_Wood_III (Wikipedia).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.