REVIEW: Richmond Hill takes us on melancholy, colorful road trip

The new show at Richmond Hill in Geneseo — the family-friendly comedy “Leaving Iowa” — is definitely a mixed bag, in good and not so good ways.

The nostalgic memory play by Tim Clue and Spike Manton is set both in the present day and — in whiplash-inducing flashbacks — the summer of a 1984 during a family vacation from Winterset, Iowa to Hannibal, Mo.

“Leaving Iowa” focuses on the road trip with the parents and their two kids, and is narrated by the only named character, Don Browning (Kevin Babbitt), and he, his sister and mom are played by the same actors in their then- and-now versions. Don is on his own modern-day journey to take his father’s ashes to his childhood home, as well as a way to breach the chasm between himself and Dad.

The parents and their two kids on a family vacation in “Leaving Iowa” at Richmond Hill Barn Theatre.

The kaleidoscopic, affectionate play is billed as a toast to the idealism and character of parents from the “greatest generation,” and a frantic roast of their dedication to the family road trip. It was nominated “Best New Play in the Country” by the Detroit Free Press and one of SoCal Theater’s “10 Most Memorable Moments” of the year after its run at the Laguna Playhouse.

A show suitable for ages 10 to 100, “Leaving Iowa” is a postcard to anyone who has ever found themselves driving alone on a road, revisiting fond memories of their youth.

Richmond Hill’s seamless, enthusiastic production is special for Don Faust and Pam Kobre, who play the parents — since they’re reunited in the same frazzled roles they had in 2011’s Playcrafters version.

In the show, Faust is often at the wheel of the mock-car, often a little lost on the road, and having to deal with the incessant bickering and whining of the two kids. Dad is dissed by the kids for choosing uninteresting vacation spots, and in Faust’s capable hands, he is perennially good-natured, cheerful and optimistic, always willing to find a new adventure.

“Leaving Iowa” features Janet VanderSchaaf, left, Don Faust, and Leslie Day.

In the story — which constantly switches back and forth in time, with changes in headgear for the “kids” signifying their youth — Don discovers Grandma’s house is now a grocery store, in one super-annoying scene (one of several, lamentable). He then continues traveling in search of a proper resting place for Dad’s urn.

As he drives roads, the story shifts back and forth from the present to memories of the annual, torturous vacations of Don’s youth. Ultimately, Don’s existential journey leads him to reconcile his past and present at an unpredictable and perfect final destination.

The star of the RHP show is Babbitt as Don, who is a world-weary, confident narrator, and my favorite parts of the play are his encounters with a variety of oddball characters. The best among these multiple roles is played by Patrick Kelley — including a cynical Iowa professor in the first act and a friendly farmer in the center of the country in the second act.

Kevin Babbitt, left, as Don, with his friend Jack (a college professor), played by Patrick Kelley.

It seemed so fitting for the Barn Theater to host this play in that second scene, with Kelley in his overalls and John Deere cap, with his wife Judy, played by Janet VanderSchaaf. It’s a tender, touching reflection on the profound influence of fathers.

Another standout scene is in the first half, when Faust and Babbitt meet a Civil War re-enactor played by Julian Totton. Faust is playingfully into the role-playing of a “battle” with a bayonet and Babbitt is super embarrassed.

As Sis, Leslie Day has an amazing energy, and consistently nails the frustrations of being a little kid and not getting what you want. Not sure what her age is supposed to be in flashbacks, but she is both tremendously perky and cute in her exuberance, and often supremely annoying in her complaining and fighting with her brother and parents.

Don Faust, left, Julian Totton, and Kevin Babbitt in “Leaving Iowa” at Richmond Hill, Geneseo.

More an issue with the play itself, I felt the flashbacks were excessive and redundant. Toward the end, when Kobre as Mom explodes at the kids, at her wit’s end, I completely empathized with her.

The solid, versatile ensemble includes Vicky Jones, Kevin Keck and Matthew McConville.

Director Justin Raver (aided by spot-on lighting design and changes by Jennifer Kingry) wrote in the program that as a kid in the 1980s, he experienced almost everything that these characters went through. “I am sure everyone who has spent a hot summer day in the back seat of a poorly air-conditioned car on the backroads of America will relate to the story presented here.

“It contains all the laughs and frustrations and sadness of growing up in the Midwest,” Raver’s program note says.

Vicky Jones and Kevin Keck as a kind of “American Gothic” couple in “Leaving Iowa.”

“Leaving Iowa” continues Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Aug. 25-27, at 7:30 pm, and Sunday, Aug. 28 at 3 pm Tickets are $12, available by calling the Richmond Hill box office at 309-944-2244 or by visiting the website.

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