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Theatre / Leaving Iowa

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Has anyone seen a mile marker?

Leaving Iowa is a 2004 comedy by Spike Manton and Tim Clue about that venerable institution, the summer family road trip. Three years after his father's death, columnist Don Browning decides the time has come to lay Dad's ashes to rest - only to discover that his first choice, Dad's childhood home, is no longer standing. As Don searches for a suitable site, he also reawakens memories of the summer vacations that Dad dragged everyone on, and in the process, learns to see his father through new eyes.

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Not just a Road Trip Plot, but a Road Trip Plot within a Road Trip Plot. The staging is typically very simple (four seats and a steering wheel) so that the action can focus on the Browning family and the curious people they meet - because as Dad knows, almost anyone is worth meeting if you look them in the eye and come up to them with a firm handshake. Since many of these are childhood memories, a certain amount of exaggeration is also to be expected.

The show was a Best New Play nominee by the Detroit Free Press, which was followed by a yearlong sold-out run in Chicago's Royal Gorge Theatre. The play has since been produced nationwide and in Canada.


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  • The Alleged Car: Mom's old car, which the present-day Don borrows, has been acting up a lot lately. Mom advises pumping it three times when trying to start the engine.
  • Are We There Yet?: Unusually for a road trip comedy, this isn't asked by the kids until the very end, when the family is about to arrive home. This is largely because the kids didn't want to go on the vacation in the first place.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: The young Sis spends much of the vacation trip teasing and tormenting her little brother. The older Sis is exasperated that Don has lied to Mom and stuck her with taking care of their obnoxious guests — but on realizing what Don has figured out for Dad's final resting place, she wishes him well, reminds him to be safe and tenderly adds "You know I love you."
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  • Backseat Driver: Dad, the one time that Mom actually gets behind the wheel.
  • Bad Impressionists: A mechanic fixing Don's car can't wait to show off his partner's impression of John Wayne. Neither it nor her follow-up of Elvis Presley (in response to a request for a Tom Jones impersonation)are worth writing home about.
  • Berserk Button: Sure, Dad's as nice as they come — until he's either stuck behind an RV on the road or in danger of having one pass. ("Big fat road hazards!") By contrast, being stuck behind an even slower-moving tractor just gets a smile and a comment that "he's just taking his time, dear, just taking his time."
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Mom is as sweet as can be, but don't push her too hard. Dad comes off on the wrong end of her fury after the legendary Honking Incident and the kids are shocked into silence when their incessant whining finally sends Mom over the edge and into a withering lecture.
  • Birth/Death Juxtaposition: Don notes that Dad died just four days after his grandson, little Joey, was born, leading to his urn being forgotten in the basement for three years. When Don comes back to Iowa to finally take care of his father's ashes, it's on Joey's birthday.
  • Catchphrase: Several for Dad, especially the classic Midwestern "You betcha, you betcha!" Also occurs with supermarket cart-wrangler Kerry Teri, who repeatedly warns Don: "I would not stand there if I were you! We've got a bit of a slope here!"
  • Cutting Corners: While Dad is no Scrooge, he is always looking for a bargain. It's mentioned that he'll drive 40 miles for an early-bird special, he'll add time to a drive to get the "cheapest gas in the state," and he prefers small and semi-obscure Midwestern vacation destinations to the "fancy overpriced shenanigans" of Yellowstone, Vegas, or the Wisconsin Dells. Even his decision to be cremated rather than buried is explained by his kids as "It was cheaper."
  • Daddy's Girl: In Don's memory, his older sister always had Dad "wrapped around her little finger."
  • Down on the Farm: In the past and present trips through Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas, most of the stops are either small towns or lonely farms, and the climax occurs at a hog farm near Lebanon, Kansas.
  • Due to the Dead: Don, Mom, and Sis realize they've left their Dad's urn in the basement of Mom's Winterset, Iowa home for three years, and that they need to finally grant his simple request to have his ashes placed at his childhood home.
  • Foreshadowing: Mom loans Don her car for the trip, but warns him that it's been having trouble starting lately. This comes back around twice - once, when Don lies to Mom on the phone about the car not starting in order to buy some time, and then when the car breaks down for real a little while later.
  • Grave-Marking Scene: Don finally finds the perfect spot for Dad's urn: a pole marking the "geographical center of the country" near Lebanon, Kansas, which his father had tried to visit on one vacation before being forced to turn around by the family. He sets the urn down and says some final words of appreciation to his father, with the actors playing Don and Dad looking each other directly in the eye.
  • Greasy Spoon: Gabby's, a diner where Don sits down to grab a bite to eat and finally come to terms with everything he never told his father.
  • The Grotesque: Sis convinces Don that the creepy-looking farmer talking to Dad is actually a psychopath with missing fingers and an extra-sharp hoe. It turns out that Joe Hoefingers is just a lonely guy who's relieved that someone finally wants to see his extensive arrowhead collection.
  • How We Got Here: The play opens with Dad driving at 3:30 a.m. and the family shocked to discover that they're nowhere near home. Near the end of the play, the action finally returns to this scene revealing that Dad had spontaneously decided to drive to the center of the country without telling the rest of the family, in hopes of adding something special to a vacation that had turned disappointing.
  • Indian Burial Ground: While asking directions, Dad discovers from a part-Cherokee farmer (Joe Hoefingers)that the ground they're on was once an ancient Indian burial ground, and that Joe has assembled a huge collection of arrowheads. Naturally, he's excited to check it out; just as naturally, his terrified kids want to stay in the car.
  • In Medias Res: The play opens in flashback, with the family asleep in the car at 3:30 a.m. while Dad tries to reach one more roadside stop, only to nod off at the wheel and nearly get hit by a semi.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: In order to buy time to find a new resting place for Dad, Don lies to his Mom on the phone about the car not starting. A few scenes later, bad weather hits and the car refuses to start.
  • Loads and Loads of Roles: In a typical production, one male actor plays all the men that the family and Don meet, and one female actor plays all the women they encounter. This can range from mechanics to cafe workers to Grandma and Grandpa to Civil War re-enactors.
  • Meaningful Echo: At the end of his journey, with Don finally at peace with Dad's memory, he remembers the end of another long trip when his Dad told him "Quite a trip, eh, big guy? You betcha ... quite a trip." Laying his father's traveler's guide next to the urn, Don quietly repeats "You betcha."
  • Motor Mouth: Jessie, a waitress at Gabby's diner, who can carry on entire conversations with absolutely no input from her customers. However, her chattering also inadvertently gives Don the solution he's been searching for.
    JESSIE: "Hi, welcome to Gabby’s, my name is Jessie, although most people think I’m gabby, too. As in gabby Jessie, not THE Gabby, although she’s never here and that’s not my problem...."
  • Nice Guy: Dad, in spades. Sure, his temper can sometimes fray when trying to get the kids to behave on long car trips. But he's always taking pleasure in the simplest things (and trying to get his kids to do the same) and treats every stranger in the world as a friend he hasn't met yet — which generally means they have become a friend by the time he hits the road again.
    DAD: "A man's handshake is a tool. Use it wisely, and it will make you friends."
  • No Sense of Direction: Dad repeatedly gets lost while taking the family on vacation, which may be why a simple four-hour drive from Winterset, Iowa ("Home of the Duke!") to Hannibal, Missouri turns into an epic wandering in the wilderness. However, his sense is razor-sharp when it comes to finding a bargain anywhere within a 40 mile radius:
    DAD: "Sure, you add what, four minutes? But hell's bells, you fuel up at Jerry's and get a free car wash and the cheapest gas in the state! So why not?"
  • Nostalgic Narrator: Don jumps back and forth between his present-day journey with Dad's urn and his time as a young boy in the back seat of the family station wagon, with frequent "Donalogues" to stitch things together.
  • Ode to Joy: Don and Sis wildly celebrate to this after Dad finally gives in to their endless pleading and agrees to take them to Ghost Caverns.
  • Parental Favoritism: When the kids clash in the back seat, Sis is almost always the one believed, while Don is usually blamed for any trouble. Of course, these are Don's childhood memories we're talking about...
  • Patriotic Fervor: As the family car follows a slow-moving tractor down the road, Dad proclaims the farmer "the best part of this country," setting off a background chorus of the Battle Hymn of the Republic as the family gets caught up in Dad's national pride.
  • Plot-Driven Breakdown: The car that Don had borrowed from Mom breaks down at the start of Act 2, setting off the chain of events that finally allows him to discover a suitable resting place for Dad.
  • Redemption Quest: Deep down, Don feels guilty about never really connecting with his father or understanding him. The "guilt trip" with his Dad's ashes allows him a second chance, and also allows him to grow into the sort of person his Dad was trying to mold.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: It's never established whether Uncle Phil and Aunt Phyllis are related to Mom or Dad (or which one is the sibling), but either way it works — in contrast to the pleasant and well-behaved small-town Iowa family, Phil and Phyllis are loud, inappropriate, completely forgetful of practical details, and love to drink even more than they love to visit. They're still good people, but not the sort you want visiting often.
  • Slow Motion: "The Honking Incident," where Dad loses his temper at a glacial RV while Mom's at the wheel, culminates in him reaching for the car's horn in slow motion while O Fortuna plays in the background.
  • Talking to the Dead: The present-day Don frequently talks to his father's urn, usually with the actor playing Dad nearby in the background, listening.
  • The Stoic: Wayne, a server at Gabby's diner with no visible emotions and few audible sentences.
  • War Reenactors: Halfway through the trip, Dad takes Don to see a Civil War bayonet demonstration.
  • Where Did We Go Wrong?: Following Dad's retirement party, Don and Dad have a painfully awkward phone call, where it's clear that Don has no idea how to talk to his father anymore, and Dad has no idea how to help him do so. (Don didn't even attend the party, but sent a letter.)
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Don's plan to place Dad's ashes at his childhood home goes awry when he realizes that Grandma and Grandpa's farm is now a grocery store.
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