By C.B. AdamsContributing WriterAct Inc.’s family-friendly production of Leaving Iowa, written by the multi-talented team of Tim Clue and Spike Morgan, feels like an adaptation of a personal essay. You know, the kind that appears around Father’s Day in the New York Times‘s Sunday Review with a title like, “Me and My Old Man.”

John Steinbeck took to the highways with his dog and ended up with a book called Travels With Charlie. Leaving Iowa, a memory play that weaves past and present, could just as well be titled Travels With My Dad — a mildly ironic title perhaps, given that the narrator of this play is carrying around his father’s memory and his burial ashes. 

Befitting its authors’ professional achievements as motivational speakers and improv/stand-up comedians, Leaving Iowa offers snappy, quick-paced and engaging dialogue that is well timed and sprinkled liberally with one-liners and other comedic accoutrements.

As an entertainment, it shares much with a good-quality sitcom in the vicinity of Home Improvement. It’s approach and themes are milder versions of those in A Christmas Story(movie or musical version), which was itself a softer version of humorist Jean Shepard’s novel In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.

Photo by John LambLeaving Iowa can feature as many as 27 performers by casting multiple character parts separately. Director Lori Renna nicely pared this production to just six by making use of the quick-changing talents of CeCe Day and John Emery.

Part of the fun of this production was anticipating whom Day and Emery would be playing the next time they emerged from the wings of the in-the-round stage at the Black Box Theater in Lindenwood’s J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts.The four other parts, played by John Reidy as Dad, Colleen Heneghan as Mom, Hunter Frederick as Don Browning and Amanda Brasher as Sis, also required the actors to portray their characters in the present and past. Hunter and Brasher delightfully transformed from young backseat nattering chatterboxes to their more mature but no less competitive adult counterparts. The play is projected through the lens of the son, Don Browning. Hunter’s likeable, identifiable and approachable portrayal of a son running the gamut of fond remembrances, regret and contrition hit his mark with ease every time.

Heneghan and Reidy as Mom and Dad respectively provided a solid base from which the rest of the play revolves. After all, doesn’t it seem like our parents never change? This was especially true as veteran actor Reidy play Dad both as a real live character as well as a tingle-inducing memory-ghost in some scenes.

As the actors bopped from scene to scene along the play’s extended time line, their efforts were well supported by the staging provided by Lori Potts, scene design by Tim Grumich, lighting design by Michael Sullivan , costume design by Jane Sullivan and sound design by Kaitlynn Ferris. To this team’s credit, all of these elements  were quietly woven into the play and provided just the right of effect to convey each scene. Sometimes, as in this case, not standing out is outstanding — and the right directorial choice.More than once, the family in Leaving Iowa piles into an imaginary car and hits a road that is sometimes metaphorical and sometimes actual. As the play ends, with Don finally finding an appropriate resting place for his father’s ashes, its resolution leaves the audience with a feeling both wistful, amused, satisfied, and…well, happy. You know that look a dog has with its head sticking out the window of a moving car, as if its smiling?Yeah, Leaving Iowa leaves you like that. 

Photo by John LambAct Inc. presents “Leaving Iowa” June 14 through June 22. Performances June 21-22 are Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Emerson Black Box Theatre at J. Scheidegger Cener for the Arts on the Lindenwood campus in St. Charles. For more information or tickets, visit www.actincstl.com

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Unexpectedly charming and heartfelt, the experimental but relatable “Well”
breaks the fourth wall just enough to easily win over the audience.

In fact, the disarming play purported to be about health
and wellness is more like a fluid, thought-provoking conversation that pulls us
in – and a running internal monologue by the lead character, playwright Lisa
Kron, about family and neighbors, and in sickness and in health.

The keen Katy Keating is endearing as the exasperated Lisa,
whose ailing mother presses all her buttons and she turns into the perpetual
angsty and whiny 13-year-old she once was and has been desperately trying to
shed that old fragile skin ever since.

Lisa tries to convince us that her latest creation –
expanded as a change of pace from her one-woman shows – is “a multi-character
theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual
and in the community.”

But really, the complicated mother-daughter relationship is
its foundation, with a side trip into their racially integrated neighborhood in
Lansing, Mich., which was spearheaded by her compassionate, liberal mother.

Mom Ann (Lori Adams) has the usual aches and pains
associated with aging, but she suffers from some sort of undiagnosed ailment
that appears to be like chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia. She is
convinced allergies keep her homebound and infirmed.

She’s made her recliner the point of operations. She perks
up watching ice skating and giving her daughter pearls of wisdom.

Mom, in her current state, seems like a kind senior citizen
whose days pass without much consequence. But every so often, she has a burst
of energy.

As played by Adams, Ann would have been quite a Mom force in the neighborhood back in the day – and we would have taken an instant shine to her. Here, we wish the frail Mom would get better so she could be productive. But she’s lovable in that earth mother kind of way.

If Lisa would get out of her own way, she’d be more confident and less tied to the past. But it’s fun to see childhood memories spring from her talented castmates. And that’s a whole other tangent. She’s searching for answers that she might never be satisfied with, ever. (If she’d only listen to Mom — and herself.)

Mom tries not to intrude but does indeed pull focus in their wonderfully lived-in middle-class Midwestern-appointed living room, deftly decorated by scenic designer Bess Moynihan and props master Laura Skroska — the rabbit tchotchke! The dainty appliqued afghan!

The pair work beautifully together and convey that longstanding complex mother and daughter relationship so well.

The entire ensemble is first-rate, with Leslie Wobbe, Carl Overly Jr., Robert Thibault and Alicia Reve Like effortlessly transitioning into different characters – severely allergic patients, old neighbors, and even themselves.

But the formidable anchor is Katy, whose sincerity and natural affability carry the show. We root for her and believe in her, despite her wrestling with personal torment. Katy, who is such an intuitive performer, can go through a gamut of emotions in a nano-second.

Director Deanna Jent knows how to extract nuanced work from her players, and she has adroitly staged this show for maximum effect.

We’re engaged by the material, yes, but we’re also captivated by the production elements.

Playwright Kron is an interesting writer, allowing herself
to be transparent in her works. No wonder she won two Tony Awards for the book
and lyrics to the musical “Fun Home.” In 2004, she wrote “Well,” which was
produced off-Broadway. Two years later, it was on Broadway.

Her clever style works well in Mustard Seed Theatre’s Blackbox theater, and the production team’s attention to detail is superb, with Michael Sullivan’s lighting design and Zoe Sullivan’s sound design enhancing the setting. Costumes by Jane Sullivan are appropriate to the story.

Witty and whimsical, serious and playful, “Well” is a
multi-layered discourse that is both fresh and familiar. And it hits close to
home because of its captivating cast.

Mustard Seed Theatre presents “Well” by Lisa Kron Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. March 1 – March 17 in the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre. For more information, visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

Katy Keating, Carl Overly Jr. and Alicia Reve Like. Photo by Ann Auerbach.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Ah, Purgatory. It’s complicated. If our fate hung in the balance between a celestial playground and a worst-case scenario, how would we feel about sin and redemption?
Using Biblical passages, historical characters, street vernacular, imagined flashbacks and behavioral psychology, prodigious playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis tests our definitions of sin and grace in a bold and epic conundrum, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”
Unusual, intense and penetrating — this ambitious Mustard Seed Theatre production is an extraordinary achievement for all involved. It’s tough, tender, edgy and above all, heartfelt.
In this sprawling and fiery opus, Guirgis explores a complex dynamic between Jesus and Judas that has confounded believers for centuries. We don’t know for certain, but Guirgis’ imagination is as limitless as it is meandering. He is a man bursting with ideas, concepts, philosophical musings and diatribes.
(And cursing. Lots o’ that among his nimble wordplay. Don’t bring the kids. Definitely for mature audiences).
Intimate in setting but big-picture brilliant in scope, the play is quite a winding – and witty — journey through time and space. So buckle up, the character clashes are riveting.
Guirgis, a 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winner for drama, for “Between Riverside and Crazy,” has given us so much to mull over that I felt as if I was cramming for a theology exam. Afterwards, I was exhilarated and emotionally spent. No test. (Or is it? Hmmm…).
But I also pondered how I would answer for my actions, decisions and interactions. I want to be more mindful, such is the effect of this play – it resonates spiritually and is rooted in reality. (Or maybe it’s the Catholic guilt rearing its ugly head. Never get away from it, no matter what age).
Assessing our lives is a natural by-product of this profound play. Oh, it’s alternately subtle, harsh, dark and funny — and more, throughout its nearly 3-hour runtime.
Because the drama’s heft is so daunting, director Adam Flores tackled the demands by shrewdly assembling a fearless cast, all up for the challenge.
His assistant director is Jacob Schmidt and Stage Manager Alycia Martin must have been a drill sergeant calling the show, for 27 characters come and go in a Purgatory courtroom.
Flores firmly moves the 13 actors as if he’s masterminding a chess tournament. It’s obviously a passion project, sparked by responding to the play in 2006, and arranging this leap of faith in the Fontbonne black box.
Previously, only Hot City Theatre staged it locally, and that was 12 years ago. The off-Broadway premiere at The Public in 2005 was directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starred Sam Rockwell as Judas, Eric Bogosian as Satan and John Ortiz as Jesus of Nazareth.
The enormous level of difficulty cannot be understated. Dramaturg Elisabeth Wurm had to make sense out of a rebel yell, full of faith and doubt, in a traditional court trial frame work. It’s thoughtful and has real depth.
Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created a minimal set of angles and platforms, and a few symbolic nods, allowing us to visualize images suggested during the testimonies. Michael Sullivan’s lighting design enhances the post-modern atmosphere.
A defense attorney for Judas, indignant Cunningham (Courtney Bailey-Parker), argues that the disgraced disciple should not be damned for all time, that others are culpable in the greater scheme of things, while overzealous prosecutor El-Fayoumy (a dandy Carl Overly Jr.) thinks a special place in hell is just fine.
A jury will decide Judas’ fate, but not before a parade of high-profile witnesses take the stand while a cranky Judge (Chandler Spradling) presides, with a nervous bailiff (Chelsea Krenning) at his beck and bark.
Some folks are impatient, surly and obstinate about being called to testify. Just because they crossed over, doesn’t mean they shed their less appealing characteristics. Saints appear at random, offering afterlife tidbits and spouting humorous anecdotes.
Parker has a considerable amount of heavy lifting, and does not miss a beat in fervent commitment to her client. Overly is slick, cajoling and conniving.
At center is Judas, near catatonic and inconsolable. As Judas, Chris Ware projects both an innocence and a howling despair. Confused, hurt and angry, he is misinterpreted by others at every turn. He barely speaks, but when provoked, he lashes out defiantly. A sadness swells.
The leads are fierce, not intimidated by the show’s weight. While portraying multiple characters or different genders, supporting actors are integral to making it flow seamlessly. Everyone has a purpose, no matter how random it appears.
The smooth ebb and flow of the cast’s intersection is noteworthy, as each character builds upon the others — the cement between the bricks.
Performers must deliver dense dialogue, with passionate monologues tumbling out of them, emphasizing ranges of emotions coursing through their character.
The sorrow of Judas’ mother Henrietta (Carmen Garcia) opens the show. She’s in period garb. But the costumes from designer Andrea Robb bends periods, ranging from traditional to reimagined.
Later switching gears to become an angry Pontius Pilate, Garcia commands the stage with haughtiness and power, bristling at the suggestion he was to blame for Christ’s crucifixion.
The oh-so-smooth Eric Dean White brings the heat as Satan, aka Lu, oozing unctuousness and evil in his first scene. The next time, he’s a ranting megalomaniac, hurling insults, contemptuous of the process.
Those are blustery roles, meant to push buttons. Other performers shine in adrenalized vignettes, particularly the saints. Rae Davis is a delight as both Saint Monica and Simon, while FeliceSkye is laugh-out-loud funny as Saint Peter, and a character Gloria – and a hoot as Sigmund Freud.
Ariella Rovinsky presents a fresh take on Caiaphas and Mary Magdalene, while Rachel Tibbetts is a touch of Rose and a dash of Sophia in a “Golden Girls”-inspired depiction of Mother Teresa. She is also a relatable St. Thomas, stunned by his quick 180 at not being a stand-up guy when Jesus needed him.
Characters recount their beliefs and experiences, and the play becomes a multi-course meal of textures, temperatures and shared plates.
Guirgis, also an actor, appeared in Charlie Kaufman’s unwieldy film about how life works, “Synecdoche, New York,” and this piece is reminiscent in that it has much to digest, and at times, seems overwhelming. It is a long haul.
Stick with it, and you will be rewarded by two of the best moments near the end — intimate reflective exchanges that mimic a therapy session. Jesse Munoz, with a calm yet authoritative demeanor, conveys a compassionate, loving and forgiving Jesus. Graham Emmons is heartbreaking as Butch Honeywell, the jury foreman who breaks the news to a forlorn Judas. He’s compelled to pour out his remorse over self-destructive choices that haunt him forever, and Emmons – new to St. Louis stages this year – is mesmerizing.
Did we experience glimpses of heaven and hell through this erudite discourse? I think we did. Notions of what afterlife awaits us change during our lifetimes, but will forever remain an enigma, no matter how many years we’re here on earth. Simmering inferno or eternal serenity?
No questions are answered here, but plenty are raised — and that’s the point. But you’ll be thinking about the divine order of things for days. Theology students take entire semesters to explore the ideas that the playwright brings up. We had one evening.
But what a tapestry we are confronted with – through a lens of sinners and saints, friendship, free will, grief and destiny.
The New Testament version of Jesus’ final days has been interpreted different ways in popular entertainment, with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 47-year-old rock opera musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar” now a blank canvas and Martin Scorsese’s controversial film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” just to name a few. This one’s more under the radar, but a wild ride nonetheless, and worthy of attention.
MST’s earnest, fiery effort will remain one of the year’s most impressive presentations – in its execution, creative dedication and the breadth of its sheer humanity. Your reaction might not be immediate, but this one lingers.
Mustard Seed Theatre presents “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” from Oct. 10 – 28, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., but no Friday, at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information, visit: www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Ann K Photography
Eric Dean White as Satan and Chris Ware as Judas.

By Andrea Braun
Contributing Writer
You haven’t lived until you’ve celebrated the Passover Seder in a camper sitting on a pick-up truck parked at a truck stop. Well, it makes sense in a way. You only have to clean a very small space, you don’t have to get rid of all the non-Kosher food, and it IS a change of scene. But still, oy vey!
Sarajane Alverson in “Raging Skillet”Photo by Eric WoolseyWhen I’m going to review a play, I usually look for background material. Raging Skillet by Jacques Lamarre is based on a memoir by Chef Rossi (Sarajane Alverson). I found a used copy of the book, then as is also my habit, I didn’t read it. But I went to consult it today about a plot point that was troubling me, and I read the whole thing about her wild ride to the top of the food chain. Obviously every detail of a book cannot be fit into a 75-minute play, but focusing on experiences that limn Chef and her family replicates the fun of reading this unorthodox autobiography. Focusing most closely on the mother-daughter experience, the work is insightful and laugh-out-loud hilarious.
When audience members enter the theatre, we’re handed a napkin, as well as a program because there will be food. Chef has worked in restaurants, but the bulk of her jobs come through her catering company, the eponymous Raging Skillet. The audience is directed by signs indicating which section will get a sample of which dish. This is a clever idea, but it doesn’t work well. Interrupting the action for long enough to serve a large group is awkward and breaks up the flow. Also, as the show started the actors seemed stiff, and I was concerned that it was going to be a misfire overall, but not at all. Once the actors found their footing, maybe 10 minutes in, Raging Skillet became a delight.

We sit around a well-equipped, attractive kitchen with a projection screen on the wall and an aerie for a DJ above. The set design is by Dunsai Dai and the extremely effective sound and projections are by Michael B. Perkins. Everything is illuminated beautifully by Michael Sullivan. We’re told we’re attending a book signing for The Raging Skillet. Alverson is joined onstage by Erin Renee Roberts playing “Skillit,” which must translate as “everybody else mentioned throughout,” from the DJ to Chef’s father Marty, other family members, co-workers, friends and lovers. She’s the hardest working woman in show business here.
Erin Renee Roberts, Kathleen Sitzer Photo by Eric WoolseyThe two are quickly joined by Chef’s mother, Harriet (Kathleen Sitzer), which wouldn’t normally be strange, except this stereotypical Jewish mother has been dead for 25 years. Yet here she is, dressed in mismatched clothing (costume design by Michele Siler), complete with a lavender snood and tennis shoes, kvelling, kvetching, and otherwise raising all kinds of michegas for her exasperated daughter. They argue about, well, everything from names (the family name is Ross changed from Rosenthal then further altered by Chef to “Rossi” having dropped her first name), to Harriet’s infatuation with the microwave, to Chef’s lesbianism and Mom’s coupon fixation. And the cherry on top is that Sitzer is a scene stealer extraordinaire. I found myself watching her, even when she wasn’t directly involved in the action.
Lee Anne Mathews’ direction is a marvel of motion, precision, and impeccable timing. The play itself has an improvisatory quality, and by emphasizing that, Matthews brings out a breeziness it might otherwise lack. Stage Manager Emily Clinger is the wizard behind the (metaphorical) curtain.
If I talk too much about the plot, I’ll give away bits that should be little surprises, so I’ll let you discover them for yourself. Meanwhile, remember that everything cool began with the Fonz, there’s nothing like a group of Southern women in a plus-size clothing store who have just learned of Elvis’ death, and, in the end, there may be more to our parents than we ever really knew. Food is love, bitches, rock on!
Raging Skillet is at the NJT through Oct. 21. You may call 314-442-3283 or visit newjewishtheatre.org.  
NOTE: I know most of you don’t read the program (sigh) but should you in this case, the title page has left out Michael B. Perkins name (Michael Sullivan is credited twice). The next page does have the correct attributions. Also, make it a point to read the Director’s Note.
Kathleen Sitzer, Sarajane Alverson and Erin Renee Roberts in “Raging Skillet,” Photo by Eric Woolsey