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Cedar Rapids theater troupe to debut Iowa play on YouTube stage

'Iowa Stories: The Vietnam Experience' opens online Friday

Al Willett (left) performs during RHCR Theatre's 2015 production of #x201c;Iowa Stories: The Vietnam Experience,#x201d;
Al Willett (left) performs during RHCR Theatre’s 2015 production of “Iowa Stories: The Vietnam Experience,” staged at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids. Willett and other cast members are reprising their roles for the play’s virtual debut Friday night on RHCR’s YouTube Channel. (Len Struttmann)
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The red door leading to the intimate Rich Heritage of Cedar Rapids Theatre space is closed during the pandemic, but when one door closes, another one opens.

The plucky nonprofit theater troupe founded by Matt Ford in Cedar Rapids in 2013, and known as RHCR Theatre, is staging the virtual debut of “Iowa Stories: The Vietnam Experience.” Showtime is 7 p.m. Friday on the theater’s YouTube channel, with links posted on RHCR’s Facebook page and its website, rhcrtheatre.wixsite.com/rhcrtheatre. Viewing is free, but a donation button will be included.

It’s the 30th anniversary of the play’s 1990 premiere at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Written in 1989 by now-retired UNI communications professor Marilyn Shaw, the initial weekend production grew into a 10-month Midwest tour, culminating with a July 4 performance at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

UNI staged revivals in 1994 and 2000. Ford, a student at UNI in 1994, appeared in the school’s Memorial Day weekend performance in Des Moines, when the capital city hosted a traveling replica of the Vietnam wall. The show returned to the UNI campus in 2000 for a 10th anniversary celebration, while a traveling wall installation was in Cedar Falls.

Ford, now 46 and a Realtor living in Hiawatha, has directed three productions in Cedar Rapids, beginning in 2008 at Theatre Cedar Rapids, and again in 2015 for his RHCR production at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. He’s directing and appearing in the current version, which is a teachable moment for him, as well as his cast, crew and upcoming audience.

“I’m not Clint Eastwood,” he said. “Being in it and directing is not easy. The Zoom technology is driving me crazy.”

Despite those challenges, the script is uniquely suited for an online presentation, he noted, since it’s written in a monologue format stemming from interviews Shaw conducted with 27 Iowa Vietnam veterans.

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“It lends itself well to a Zoom format,” Ford said, adding that he’s treating it like a support group/rap session in which the characters talk about their Vietnam experiences. It’s being taped ahead of time, to allow for some postproduction editing to highlight various moments.

Cast members include Cheryl Burns, Al Willett, James Campen, Oscar Richie IV and Troy Powell, all of Cedar Rapids; Susie Burns of Fairfax; Ann Cejka of rural Mount Vernon; Len Struttmann and Ford, both of Hiawatha. Crew members are production manager Deidra Benser and sound director Evan Harney, both of Cedar Rapids.

It’s personal

Ford keeps coming back to the show for very personal reasons.

His parents are Vietnam veterans, and while his mother talked about her service stateside as an Army nurse, his father, a Marine who spent two years as a crew chief working on airplanes in Vietnam, never talks about it. Indeed, the play came about when Shaw, who was in high school during the war, discovered in 1989 that it barely got a mention in her daughter’s history textbook. Shaw’s college students didn’t know much about it, either.

“That’s why she decided maybe there’s story here that needs to be told,” Ford said, noting that because of some raw language, he would rate it PG-13.

“There are some intense moments. Each one talks about their views, but there’s no political slant to it,” he said.

“Vietnam still is relevant. Even though since then there hasn’t been a draft, it still resonates with people — with (veterans’) experiences and how they deal with the afterward.”

The play also helps Ford better understand what his father went through.

His mother, on the other hand, has shared photos and spoken freely about her experiences at Fort Lee in central Virginia. She told him about going to Washington, D.C., after riots broke out there in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. And she lived across the hall from fellow Army nurse Diane Carlson Evans, who spearheaded the movement to place a Vietnam Women’s Memorial near the Vietnam wall.

Washington, D.C., is one of Ford’s favorite places, and he’s been there more than 10 times. In 2008, he helped his mother realize her wish to go there over Memorial Day weekend. Evans was a keynote speaker for the ceremony that year, so the two women were reunited after 40 years.

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Most recently, he accompanied his mother there again in 2017, where she received a commendation after retiring from her military career. Seven years ago, he and his sister flew to Washington on May 20 to surprise their father, who was on an Honor Flight trip from Jasper County.

Seeing the Vietnam memorial wall always is a profound experience, he said. “There’s just an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness. It’s so quiet.”

And each time he’s been involved with the play, he’s especially stricken by several aspects.

“The combat stories,” he said, “because 58,000 of our soldiers died, and there’s some really hard retelling of people who lost close friends there.

“And then, it’s so different growing up when I did, during both Gulf wars and the Middle East and how the military soldiers were treated when they came home. Vietnam was so different than how we treat the military now.”

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

How to watch

What: RHCR Theatre presents 30th anniversary production of “Iowa Stories: The Vietnam Experience”

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: RHCR Theatre’s YouTube channel, with links posted on Facebook and Rhcrtheatre.wixsite.com/rhcrtheatre

Cost: Free, but donations accepted

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