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Don’t leave home without Iowa: ‘Leaving Iowa’ debuts Wednesday for Paul Bunyan Playhouse

Pictured in the front row are Betti Battocletti playing Mom; Michael Lee playing Dad and in the back row are Brett Lawlor playing Don Browning and Siri Hammond playing Sis in Paul Bunyan Playhouse’s presentation of “Leaving Iowa.” (Maggi Stivers | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- Remember the days of family outings in a so-called simpler time when parents lived within their budgets and children pleaded for trips to theme parks only to be disappointed with road trips.

“Leaving Iowa,” by Spike Manton and Tim Clue debuted in 2004 and continues to be a favorite play in summer theaters -- it opens Wednesday at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse at the Chief Theater in downtown Bemidji.

This family friendly comedy is a look at the Brownings — dad, mom, brother and sister — and dad’s interest in finding the “world’s largest ball of twine” to the disappointment of the children who fill their time teasing each other in the back seat. Sis as convincingly played by Siri Hammond is the thorn in the side of her brother Don (Brett Lawlor), who is repeatedly chastised by his father (Michael Lee) for “nobody likes a bully.” Mom, sensitively played by Betti Battocletti, is the archetypical wife of the early 1950s and ‘60s, before women’s lib. She finally has had enough from her bickering children when she admonishes them with the familiar parental warning “because I said so.” Those cliches are sprinkled throughout the dialogue: “My way or the highway,” “Two wrongs don’t make a right” and “Liar, liar pants on fire!” are spoken by the family to the delight of those old enough to remember their own childhood family adventures. Visits to the grandparents’ farm are always the first choice for the family with grandma’s giant crispy treats and the chance to ride the tractor; they always seem “to be waiting at the white fence for us.”

Act two revolves around the son, Don, now an adult living in Boston and a successful writer, who returns home for the christening of his sister’s baby in an attempt to reconnect with his family.  Dad has passed away and Don is shocked to learn that his ashes are still not buried. Don promises to take the urn and bury dad at the grandparents’ farm. And thus begins the father-son close relationship so longed for by Don in his childhood -- “We were not good at saying what we felt,” and his guilt at not trying hard enough as an adult. The family trips are brought forth in Don’s memory with the help of people now years older and familiar. These characters are brilliantly played by two actors (Eli Purdom and Siobhan Bremer) who can change clothes as quickly as they change personas. Don continually converses with his father during this road trip and completes his goal of burying his father’s urn.

Director Jim Williams has managed to bring his actors together to present a realistic view of life before the advent of video games, portable DVD players and Harry Potter books.

The sets are copies of the welcome signs of the states they visit: “The People of Illinois Welcome You” and “South Dakota -- Great Faces. Great Places” -- with the familiar Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln carved into Mount Rushmore. Scenic designers Jim Danneker and Thomas Sonneman have kept the set simple, which makes the actors work harder at making the show so believable. The multiple character actors are believable in their on-stage dialogue with the family and then Don.

“Leaving Iowa” will be on stage starting at 7:30 Wednesday through Saturday, with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m. July 27-30. Tickets are $22 adult tickets (for the first four shows of the season); $17 adult Sunday matinee and opening night for first four shows; $12 student price for first four shows and $25 for all performances of final musical (adult and student). The box office hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every other Sunday. Call the box office at (218) 751-7270.