Arts & Culture

'APPLE SEASON' REVIEW: Confronting memories

Riverside Theatre premiere climbs into high reaches of past horrors

S. Benjamin Farrar photo

Lissie (Courtney Esser, left) and Billy (Barrington Vaxter) find their shared ground and fleeting smiles from their childhood in “Apple Season,” onstage through April 20 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City. It’s part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere for this memory play by E.M. Lewis.
S. Benjamin Farrar photo Lissie (Courtney Esser, left) and Billy (Barrington Vaxter) find their shared ground and fleeting smiles from their childhood in “Apple Season,” onstage through April 20 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City. It’s part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere for this memory play by E.M. Lewis.
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IOWA CITY — We can’t choose our families at birth, but we can choose when the time is ripe to run.

That’s the driving force behind “Apple Season,” the second installment in a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, onstage at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City through April 20. It launched in New Jersey in January, and will wrap up in Los Angeles in September, with different casts and crews in each location.

Past crashes into present in this searing drama a decade in the making from Oregon native E.M. Lewis. She set her memory play in the world she knows, having grown up on a family farm with apple trees, but she quickly pointed out in a previous Gazette interview that her parents are lovely people. The father in her play is not.

He’s a monster whose alcohol-fueled rages send his son, Roger (Aaron Weiner), and daughter, Lissie (Courtney Esser), running to hide in the safety of the high branches in their apple orchard — until they’re old enough to run away completely.

But as with everything that shapes us, we can never run away completely.

Fast-forward 25 years, and Roger and Lissie Fogerty make their first trip back to their homeland, to bury their father. Their “invisible” mother had died in their youth, before she could do anything to effect change for her children — but even if she had lived, she would have been powerless to really help them.

And so the show opens with Lissie on a ladder, picking bushels of apples in a pointless routine she knows so well. She’s not going to take them back to her new home, and with the cider press relegated to a bird’s nest after years of neglect, she’s not really going to make any cider either. But it’s a routine that can help her tamp down the memories roiling beneath the surface.

Then Billy (Barrington Vaxter), the neighbor with whom the siblings grew up, comes over with an offer to buy their land. And the past explodes anew, like a volcano spewing all its molten secrets.

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The memories are ugly, and in less skilled hands, would be nearly impossible to watch. But artistic director Adam Knight and his stellar, instinctive cast have created a thing of beauty out of a well of horror. They don’t wear the pathos on their sleeves. The emotions emanate from a spot festering deeply within, oozing out bit by bit, bite by bite as the memories unfold.

We don’t see Roger in the moment, but his presence is woven delicately throughout, as he enters the present from the dark recesses of the past. When he does enter a scene, the lights change to a dark blue, and the other actors freeze in time, unless they are interacting with him in the past.

The time frame is never fuzzy. The actors change their posture according to their age, and with a quick twist of his farmer’s ball cap, Vaxter switches from present-day Will Rizzell to past-tense Billy, a high school basketball star who knew something was wrong on the neighboring farm, but was too young to understand the gravity of the situation. He knew Roger needed an ally, and he thought Lissie was cute.

S. Benjamin Farrar has given the acting trio an amazing space in which to tell their story. The tin-sided apple shed, the low-hanging branches dripping with bright fruit, the ancient apple grinder, a scattering of crates and uneven land off to one side pack so many options and visual punch into an intimate space.

It’s so intimate that you’d be well advised to take tissues. I didn’t cry like so many in Friday’s opening night audience, but I needed to escape into the fresh spring air and breathe. And process all the places this affecting story touched within me.

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

IF YOU GO

l What: “Apple Season” by E.M. Lewis, a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere

l Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City

l When: To April 20; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; 80 minutes, no intermission

l Tickets: $10 to $30, Riverside Theatre Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or boxoffice.diamondticketing.com/riversidetheatre/events

l Talkback: With playwright following the April 6 performance

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l Details: Riverside Theatre, riversidetheatre.org/apple-season; National New Play Network, nnpn.org

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.