‘Apple Season’ is moving and restrained

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Apple Season

Riverside Theatre — through April 20

Talkback with Playwright E. M. Lewis

Riverside Theatre — Saturday, April 6, following the performance

Courtney Esser and Barrington Vaxter in the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of ‘Apple Season.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

Iowa City needs new work. We are a City of Literature, a city of curation, a city of having written — new work shakes us out of our steadiness and surety and forces us to contemplate the glorious mess of process. It gifts us with those nuggets of honesty that can be sluiced away by a deluge of revision or buried deep beneath layers of polish.

We are so lucky that Riverside Theatre is part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere initiative. Through it, we have the honor of being trusted as a sounding board for work that is still, in some ways, stretching to find its place. And we have the privilege of being part of the process of creation — as director Adam Knight said in his opening night curtain speech, theater is one of the few creative arts that cannot be complete without an audience.

Apple Season, playwright E. M. Lewis’ latest, is currently in Iowa City on the second stop of its three-city Rolling World Premiere. It was first produced in New Jersey and will see a run in California after this. Lewis herself will be in Iowa City for a talkback after the show on April 6. The show centers around Lissie (Courtney Esser), home for her father’s funeral and, unwittingly, a reckoning with her past.

It’s fascinating to explore Apple Season, particularly, as a new work, because it’s a glorious mess of process about the glorious mess of process. Lissie is, as the kids say, working through some shit — right on stage, laid bare, with a level of interiority that is remarkably hard to portray.

At times, when Lissie is distant and closed and inside herself, Esser struggles to maintain that throughline of connection to her scene partners and the audience. But she also has moments of shining clarity that offer stepping stones through Lissie’s morass.

The action of Apple Season kicks off when Billy (Barrington Vaxter) emerges from Lissie’s past and offers to buy her family’s apple orchard, a plot of land that she can’t possibly maintain now that her father has passed. As with all childhood homes, though, it’s much more than a plot of land. Billy’s presence serves as an anchor for Lissie to the present day, as she dives deep into unforgiving memory.

Courtney Esser and Aaron Weiner in the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of ‘Apple Season.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

Transitions between past and present are marked by S. Benjamin Farrar’s apt lighting, fantastic sound design from Bri Atwood and the most powerful character work that Esser presents, as she nimbly shifts between Lissie’s ages. In the past, Lissie’s brother, Roger (Aaron Weiner), first appears. The intimate connection between siblings sharing a secret is deftly added in subtle ways — Knight’s direction in these scenes is fantastic.

It’s a joy to see Vaxter on the Riverside stage for the first time this season. He brings a solidity to Billy that I’m not convinced is there, doing his best to redeem a character that seems at many times written as nothing more than a counterweight to Lissie’s spiral. Billy’s story weaves between Lissie and Roger, but never quite seems to strike out on its own, except inasmuch as the guilt he carries for not having seen the truth of his friends’ suffering works as an audience surrogate.

Weiner’s work as Roger does much of the emotional heavy lifting of this production. Although Roger is primarily present as a memory, making the lens on him blurry and not always kind, Weiner’s performance cuts through. Quite a lot of the dramatic tension in Apple Season lives in the space between knowledge and action, and Weiner’s Roger embodies that space thoroughly. You can almost see, through the tightly coiled ball of rage that Weiner becomes when Roger speaks about his and Lissie’s father, echoes of the man the father must have been.

It should be noted that, although Apple Season carries the subject of abuse with oh so much care, the subject is pertinent and pervasive. Audience members with histories of abuse should take precautions, such as making plans to process with a friend directly afterward, or whatever self-care habits you have in place.

Apple Season doesn’t pull any punches. It is slow and deliberate and incredibly gentle as it opens spaces where most theater-goers, even without trauma experience, would not choose to go. But in the end, it demands that we ask ourselves, “What have you done about this?” and “What would it take for you to step in?” It’s a personalizing moment that theater doesn’t often get, and it’s powerful.

Take the chance to explore this new work, and let it explore you. As it navigates between present and presence, past and passed, you’re sure to find that nugget of honesty.

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