IOWA CITY — Through the process of baking an apple pie, Marquetta Senters, one of the region’s finest actors, folds in food for thought for audience members lucky enough to witness “Apples in Winter” at Riverside Theatre.
Jennifer Fawcett’s new drama began as a one-page proposal that won the coveted 2015 Smith Prize for Political Theatre from the National New Play Network. Now Riverside Theatre, where she is a frequent actor, director and playwright, is launching the one-woman show on the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere. Subsequent productions will be staged in New Jersey and Indianapolis as part of the rollout, with an additional staging planned in Minneapolis this summer.
The topic is riveting and gut-wrenching.
Miriam (Senters) has arrived at a sterile kitchen prison to fulfill her son’s request to have her apple pie be the last thing he savors before his execution.
“He still needs me. I’m still his mother,” she tells the audience. “To watch him eat something I’ve made for him with love is right, it’s natural.”
She brings her dry ingredients in plastic bags, along with three perfect apples she has carefully selected to bring just the right blend of bite to offset the sweetness of the sugar and spices.
It’s a recipe she made every September in his youth, before his addictions and bad choices sent him spiraling out of her reach and onto death row for murdering a young couple in a robbery gone awry.
She speaks to the audience as she cuts chilled butter into the flour, explaining the reasons for her every move and every ingredient. She picks up the paring knife to peel and slice the apples, disarmed to discover it’s tethered to the prep table. Nothing is familiar in these surroundings, except for the ardor that she pours into her task.
“My pies are more than decent, because they’re made with love,” she says.
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It’s a love that surpasses the heartache of the 22 years she has been serving his sentence on the outside, in a prison of her own, ostracized by her family and friends, and judged by all who know of her son’s crime. After all, she created this monster, so she must be a monster, too.
Senters’ pacing is perfect, under the deft hand of guest director Beth Wood from Cleveland Public Theatre. It’s an emotional roller coaster as the mother unrolls details bit by bit. Some are sweet memories, some have the bitter sting of a world turned upside down. All are heartbreaking — especially toward the end, when the emotional toll of her task brings Miriam to her knees.
And all the while, a clock on the back wall measures the passage of time. Time that has been standing still until now.
“I thought there would be more time,” she says.
It’s a shattering look into the unspoken, unseen victims of heinous crimes, and it spoke not only to the viewers in attendance Saturday night, but to the participants in the Inside Out Re-entry Community in Iowa City.
The program helps ease the transition back into a society they may not have seen in more than a decade. (www.insideoutreentry.com)
Staff, volunteers and those who have been incarcerated shared their stories and their reactions, laced with candor and tears. One former inmate from Illinois didn’t even know how to use a cellphone, or where to turn with the $10 he was given at the prison gate. Another man said he “hated” the play, quickly adding that it was “excellent,” but difficult to watch, since it touched on so many familiar themes.
All of the participants turned to Fawcett and said, “How did you know?” How did she know about tethered knives, no chairs and time standing still. By research and by instinct, she replied.
The play is a humbling, harrowing walk, told with the utmost skill and care, from sound and scenic design to writing, directing, and above all, acting emanating from deep within a sensitive soul.
l Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org
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l What: “Apples in Winter,” by Jennifer Fawcett, a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere
l Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
l When: To March 18; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
l Run time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
l Tickets: $18 to $30, Riverside Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or Riversidetheatre.org/applesinwinter
l Talkbacks: Following these performances: Thursday (3/8), actress Marquetta Senters with host Miriam Gilbert; Friday (3/9), Kathrina Litchfield from University of Iowa Center for Human Rights and Rod Courtney from CRUSH (Community Resources United to Stop Heroin in Iowa); Saturday (3/10), Ellen Lewin, professor, UI Department of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies