I was led to the miracle show by my good friend, David Sindelar. He told me he was going to be auditioning for a show called Leaving Iowa over at the Bellevue Little Theatre. Now that theatre is quite a ways from where I live, so in order for me to make the long drive out there, I really have to believe in the quality of the show.
I looked up the synopsis of the script and found it most fascinating. The play focuses on a Boston writer named Don Browning who returns to his hometown of Winterset, IA for the baptism of his nephew. While visiting his home, the family finds his late father’s ashes in the basement. Don, who has reluctantly returned home to begin with, remembers his dad’s last request to have his ashes spread on the family farm in Mt Union, IA. Don decides to fulfill his dad’s request only to find that the family farm has been turned into a grocery store. Don spends the remainder of the play trying to find the ideal spot to spread dear old dad while reminiscing about the final family vacation to Hannibal, MO and mending the gap between him and his late father.
It was a nice slice of life play that seemed to have a little bit of everything from slapstick comedy to achingly dramatic moments and so I decided to go ahead and audition for the show myself.
I had a great audition. I was having fun. I was enjoying myself and what I was doing seemed to be working. My old friend, Ron Chvala, also attended the audition and he told me that I was in rare form after the audition ended.
That Tuesday I got a call from the play’s director, Sonia Keffer, who said she would like to cast me as Don.
Boy was I excited!! But I tried to keep a professional tone as I accepted the offer, then got all excited on Facebook when I started off my post with SWEET SASSY MOLASSEY!!!
In a nearly dreamlike state, I attended the first readthrough. I almost had to pinch myself. I just couldn’t believe that the long drought had finally ended and in such spectacular fashion. I had finally won a good and proper leading role as this was a fully published and copyrighted play. The whole cast was just a group of wonderful people and that first readthrough was such a blast. Yes, it seemed everything was falling into place.
And then I almost had it all jerked from my grasp.
I had been going through a bit of a difficult period and I was glad to have this show to work on. Leaving Iowa was a lot like W;t in the sense that Don, like Vivian Bearing, not only serves as the show’s central character, but he is also the narrator of the story. In a 2 hour play, Don is only off stage for about 3 minutes. I had more dialogue in this show than I did with all of my other roles put together.
I wasn’t worried about learning the dialogue as I have always had a particular knack for memorization and am usually off book in a matter of days. I was making good progress on learning my lines, but still dealing with my difficulties and one night it all crashed in on me.
I was diligently studying my lines and had 40 pages committed to memory when my hands suddenly started shaking like leaves on a tree. I broke out in a cold sweat and nearly started hyperventilating. I was in the throes of a panic attack.
I have since learned that in panic attacks, the mind tends to gravitate towards some sort of fear. Unfortunately, I had been working on the play when my attack struck so my mind was afflicted with the actor’s nightmare. I began to fear forgetting all of my lines in the middle of a performance with no means of salvation because Don was alone a lot.
I had hoped that a good night’s sleep would right everything, but I couldn’t get to sleep and my mind would not turn off. Nothing would stick in my mind and the lines I did know, I suddenly could not recall. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to give up my part. I had worked too hard for it. But it was the only thing I felt I had any control over at that point.
That Friday afternoon, I had a long talk with Sonia and I was fully prepared to bow out of the show, even though I feared it would spell the end of all of my theatre aspirations.
Thank goodness for a person like Sonia.
She paid me a very high compliment by telling me that I was her one and only choice for Don and that she didn’t have a second choice to fall back on. Sonia said she was a big believer in talk therapy and recommended that I talk to someone. She wouldn’t let me give up my part and asked that I take a few days to give me time to speak to someone. Sonia said she believed with her whole heart that I could handle the role, but would understand if my real life had to come first.
I did get in to speak to a counselor and got a lot of things off my chest that needed getting off. I felt as if a tremendous weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. That night I went home and immediately ran through the show from start to finish. Even when I thought nothing was being committed to memory, my subconscious had managed to store it away and now my recall was back.
I texted Sonia on Tuesday and let her know that things were in much more balance and that I would be able to continue with the show. Sonia was delighted.
It was a little slow going for me at first because I still felt a little nervous, but I still remember that glorious night when it all came together in my head. We had been working the scene where young Don and his sister (sensationally played by Mary Trecek) successfully badger dear old Dad (charmingly realized by Mark Kocsis) into taking them to Ghost Caverns. During our comically exaggerated celebration, I executed a cartwheel and found Don.
From that point, my development was exponential. By opening night I and the entire cast were rocking and rolling. Our reservations started off slowly, but after the word of mouth got around, our houses doubled and tripled by the second weekend and we nearly sold out a couple of performances during our last weekend. Our producer, Mark Ferrill, said it was the best show he’d seen in his association with the theatre and I think it was the most commercially successful non-musical, the BLT had had in years.
Doug Blackburn came out and said it was the best thing he had seen me (and several other of the cast do). He especially praised the physicality changes between the older and younger versions of our characters.
The newspaper review was glowing and I reprint it for you below:
Enjoy Trip in ‘Leaving Iowa’ by Adam Klinker—Reprinted from Bellevue Leader
In as much as Saturday evening was my very first spent at the Bellevue Little Theatre, let me first shame myself for the nearly 34 year journey it took me to get to this splendid artistic asset for Olde Towne and the metro area entire.
That said, my first reason for visiting–the theater’s production of the comedy “Leaving Iowa,” running weekends through June 16–has me greatly looking forward to a much shorter return voyage for future performances.
With “Leaving Iowa,” Sonia Keffer, herself a first-timer in the BLT director’s seat, has created a wonderful picaresque of sorts around yet another rapidly fading thread within the American social fabric: the family vacation.
The play’s intrepid and, indeed, unpredictable Browning family of Winterset, IA (“Home of the Duke!”), are your typical middle-class Midwestern family–or what would have passed for them a decade or two ago when we were not so beholden to longer hours at the office and in front of screens and had longer attention spans for such things as overland travel.
Following two narrative paths–one a series of flashbacks to a wild summer road trip and the other set in the present and involving Don, the eldest son of the Browning clan, and a similarly mock tragicomic adventure to find a suitable resting place for his father’s ashes–the comedy is both funny and a sometimes poignant look at what we gain and lose in growing up both as a people and as a nation.
As Don, Chris Elston is spot-on as a shelled-over, middle-aged newspaper columnist now living in Boston and trying hard to keep his childhood at bay. When he returns to Iowa somewhat grudgingly for a family get-together, he finds an excuse to get out of the house and, for once, play the dutiful son in fulfilling his father’s last wish to have his remains spread on the site of his homeplace in Mount Union, Iowa; all this transpiriing three years after his father’s death and the ashes stored unceremoniously but perhaps fittingly atop the basement fuse box.
The discovery that his father’s boyhood home is now a grocery store sets Don off on a new mission–dredging up all those memories of vacations past in hopes of finding a spot to stand as a fitting final repose for the old man.
The flashbacks take us to a family trip to Hannibal, MO, boyhood home of Mark Twain. Along the way, we are treated to marvelous performances from Danielle Smith as Mom and Mary Trecek as Sis.
Smith’s is a wonderfully performed, slyly witty go as the typical vacation mediator between both Dad and the kids and the kids themselves. Her turn at the wheel of the station wagon is just how I remember my own mother on those rare occasions when my father relinquished the driving duties but could never quite contain his desire to remain captain of the ship.
Trecek is also hilarious as the bratty and manipulative little sister who knows just when to use her powers for good and ill.
But in this cast with lots of big lines and laughs, veteran actor but BLT rookie Mark Kocsis, in the role of Dad, is nearly perfect. In what could easily be the stereotypical display of fatherly buffoonery, Kocsis goes just enough over the top to remind you of your own dear old dad gushing over the first seedling mile of the Lincoln Highway and for the geographically-inclined, will also have you laughing knowingly about how an expedition from Winterset to Hannibal got sidetracked all the way to Malta, IL.
At one point, Don says, “Fascinating was the family vacation F-word’ and Kocsis’ neverending and exuberant fascination is funny and endearing.
The play really does boil down to the long, strange trip involved in the father-son relationship and some of the best scenes are in Don’s humorous, sometimes rueful soliloquies while Dad hovers nearby.
Ron Chvala and Sherry Josland Fletcher, in more than half a dozen roles each as locals in the roadside stops made by Don and the Browning family, add a delightful bit of slapstick. The Civil War bayonet demonstration between Chvala and Kocsis is some of the best physical comedy I’ve seen on the stage.
Much of the action takes place in a car and, on a stage, the dynamic of this can be tricky. But the kinetic and comic acumen of the four actors playing the Brownings makes it truly seem, even in a stationary setting, that we’re going places.
With any voyage, there comes a point when it can seem we’re going on too long, but the moment here is kept to a minimum with a well-rendered and thoughtful conclusion for which Keffer and her actors are to be commended.
Truly, the Brownings ultimately understand the old maxim: getting there is more than half the fun and sometimes, especially in our sped-up America, the anticipation over simply arriving at the destination can end in a letdown.
I can’t say that at all for my first tour of the BLT. “Leaving Iowa” is a journey to take and, moreover, to savor.
Word of my performance spread throughout the theatre community. People who hadn’t seen the show came up to me and said they had heard how fabulous I had been. Sonia told me she was proud of me for having stuck with it and so was I. I had faced my greatest adversity and soundly trounced it.
I even learned that I had received a number of nomination votes for Best Actor for that year’s Theatre Arts Guild Awards and the show received a nomination for Best Comedy.
But the best thing I received was the peace of mind that had long eluded me in theatre. I had finally reached the top of the mountain and now knew once and for all that I was a good actor. Even if I never get cast again, I can look back at Leaving Iowa and say I did that one great thing.
And that brings us up to the present day. I hope you have enjoyed reading these anecdotes as much as I have writing them. And I look forward to sharing my new adventures with you.