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Eastside Theater Company show will spark memories of dad-directed road trips

If You Go

What: Eastside Theater Company presents "Leaving Iowa," a poignant, humorous play about a father on a soul-searching road trip

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27, March 1, 5 and 7; 4:30 p.m.

Feb. 29 and March 7

Where: Springwater Church, 3445 S.E. Hillyard Road, Gresham

Admission: $12, adults; $9.50, students and seniors (advance); $2 more at the door

Tickets and information: visit www.eastsidetheater.com or call 971-231-5032

COURTESY PHOTO: EASTSIDE THEATER CO.  - Daniel Johnson, who plays lead character Don in Eastside Theater Companys Leaving Iowa, converses during play rehearsals with two mechanics played by Naomi Klockers, left, and Kaden Jayme regarding the state of his automobile. Less than two months into 2020, Gresham's Eastside Theater Company has hit the ground running, presenting two concurrent productions, "Willy Wonka" and "Leaving Iowa" in a series of shows through late February and early March.

The Outlook spoke with "Willy Wonka" director Liz Bertsch last week about that production, which opens on Friday, Feb. 28. This week, Jess Sheppard, a guest director with Eastside, shares her thoughts on "Leaving Iowa." The critically acclaimed play by Tim Clue and Spike Manton is described as a family-friendly production centered on Don Browning, a middle-aged writer who decides to take his late father's ashes to his childhood home, reconciling his past and present in the process.

Here is what Sheppard has to say about the production:

The Outlook: How was "Leaving Iowa" chosen for Eastside Theater Company's late-winter production, running in tandem with "Willy Wonka?"

Jess Sheppard: (Bertsch) approached me last summer with the script, asking me if I would be interested in directing it for them. After reading it and recovering from all the laughter, I said yes. In a way, both of these shows are about growing in their own way. The method of storytelling is completely different, but the underlying effect is the same: we have gone on an exciting journey, met many interesting characters, and emerged wiser and changed at the end.

Outlook: Do you expect some audience overlap or two different kinds of audiences?

Sheppard: I definitely hope so. "Wonka" has the big name draw that is going to draw people just by familiarity. "Iowa" is nowhere near as well known. I'd never heard of it until (Bertsch) gave me a script. But I think people who enjoy straight shows — that's what we call a non-musical show — will still come and have a blast.

Outlook: How many are in the cast? When did you start casting?

Sheppard: We have 15 actors in the cast but the script is written in such a way as it can be done with as little as six. Auditions were held at the end of September. We had a read through in November before Thanksgiving break and rehearsals began in December.

Outlook: What do you like about the storyline, script and characters? How are the actors relating to it?COURTESY PHOTO: EASTSIDE THEATER CO.  - Rehearsing for Eastside Theaters Leaving Iowa, Daniel Johnson as Don stands lost in thought in the parking lot where Dons grandparents house had previously stood, as an eccentric grocery store attendant played by Faith Strot interacts with a distressed customer played by Alex Burton.

Sheppard: I'm a huge fan of minimalist setting, non-linear storytelling. It is hard, don't get me wrong, and not everyone can do it, but when it works it's the kind of show that touches you. The actors have taken to their characters like fish to a stream and watching them puzzle and rearrange all these hilarious interactions has been a true joy. We've spent a whole hour of rehearsal sometimes just in discussion of one scene's back story.

I have especially liked interrupting the actors in a scene, without warning, and asking them, 'What is your character thinking right now?' or 'What's your motivation for that word?' ... That's how deeply we've discussed these scenes. Sometimes it's because I can see the actor isn't sure of their subtext and sometimes it's because they're doing something brilliant and I want them to firmly cement that epiphany in their mind.

Outlook: What does the story say to you about reconciling the present with the past as well as familial loss?

Sheppard: The very nature of the show is reflecting on how our memories of the past have shaped our present. Don goes on what should be a simple drive to scatter his father's ashes at the ancestral family farm and as he passes the familiar landmarks of his childhood family road trips, he realizes how each of those experiences made him the man he is today. And when it turns out the farm is now a grocery store and his plan goes out the window, he turns to memories for help in finding the right resting place for dad. Along the way he comes to grips with how he and his father drifted apart, and we ache with him when he regrets all the things he held back or didn't say and now can't because it's too late. I have no doubt there will be "something in my eye" at the end of the show when Don at last finds the perfect place for his father and is able to lay him and his regrets to rest.

We're selling tissues at concessions. Be prepared and buy a pack.

Outlook: Do you find the characters and themes universal and widely appealing?

Sheppard: I think the setting of the show and its method of storytelling will resonate most with older generations. It resonates with me because I remember being crammed into the backseat of my father's truck with my two siblings every July and making the six-hour drive south to visit family. It's going to make all of us who were around before cellular devices and headphones were the norm.

I think it will still spark for younger viewers as well, many of them have heard the second- and sometimes third-hand stories of notorious or disastrous family trips. I think many younger viewers are going to turn to their parents or grandparents after this show and ask, "Is that really how that was?"

Even without the backdrop of the road trip, the dysfunctional family is still a universally recognized theme that everyone enjoys. Siblings will relate to the picked on little brother and the bratty older sister. Parents will cringe at the screaming, bickering siblings. Everyone will groan at dad's terrible jokes and boring trivia. And just wait 'til dad honks the horn while mom is driving. There really is something for everyone in this show to relate to.COURTESY PHOTO: EASTSIDE THEATER CO.  - In Leaving Iowa, lead character Don, played by Eastside Theaters Daniel Johnson, hits the road to scatter his late fathers ashes.


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