Way of the Midwest

By Tom Helma

Riverwalk takes to the open road with humor, nostalgia

At first glance this is a simple nostalgia story, but wait. ”Leaving Iowa,” running through Sunday at Riverwalk Theatre, invites us back to be lost in the ‘70’s, where roadside attractions were advertised on highway billboards, Dad was king of the road and Mom’s role was simply to say “yes, dear.” If this were all that this stage play was, it would be enough; an amusing recollection of vacation visits to cheesy places like the two-story outhouse, the Paul Bunyan statue made of auto parts and Prehistoric Forest.

What? You didn’t get to see these one-of-a-kind sites?

Deep in the soul of this script, however, is a richer tale, a coming-to-realization insight that good old, weird old Dad was a teacher of truths, a dispenser of wise thoughts, someone who put all others in the family first, expanding the world one strange factoid at a time.

In the first part of “Leaving Iowa,” Mike Stewart plays Dad, the man behind the wheel of a family road trip who seems to be in great blustery oblivion to the squirrely and squirmy needs of his young son and daughter in the back seat. No means no — a thousand times, no — until he is worn down finally to a “we’ll see.”

With him in a series of car trip adventures are his, son Don (Joseph Baumann); Don’s Energizer Bunny sister, Sis (Micaela Procopio); and Heidi Maahs as his faithful companion, Mom. Baumann and Procipio are bundles of awkward energy, nonstop twits who poke, tease and infuriate each other like no children in the back seat have ever done (except maybe my own.)

Fast-forwarding to the present, Dad has passed on and Don has taken on the task of spreading his father’s ashes in some significant spot … somewhere. Enter a supporting cast of seven people playing 23 parts — the quirky and simple folks a chatty person meets while on the road. Adam Bright,

playing six of those roles, creating enough of a difference between them to amuse considerably. His waiter, Wayne, is hilariously deadpan. The other supporting characters — Marie Papciak, Susan Chmurynsky, Grace Hinkley, Sierra Olson and Justin Brewer — all get their tiny moments in the sun, but this is Baumann’s play, and as the writer of the story, he gets to shine.

There are moments when we wonder if we have appreciated our father sufficiently. Baumann’s Don gets to reflect on this out loud with an omnipresent ghost-figure Dad smilingly watching on. When Don finds the perfect place to spread Dad’s ashes, it helps him realize that his Dad was the center of his universe, providing safety and adventure in seemingly ordinary cross-country vacations.

“Leaving Iowa”

Riverwalk Theatre 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Feb. 14-15; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16 $10 Thursday/ $14 Friday- Sunday/ students, seniors and military $2 discount 228 Museum Drive, Lansing (517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com